GEOINT Walkthrough: 10 MAY 2023
This is a GEOINT walkthrough of how I solved a fun GEOINT challenge posed by @twone2 over on Twitter. In it, I will walkthrough my GEOINT methodology, including the tools I used, my analytical process, and the results. For anyone not familiar with the basics of GEOINT, I would recommend checking out my article "Unraveling the Where: A Deep Dive into Geolocation (GEOINT) for OSINT."
The Challenge: @twone2’s Geo-Puzzle
The challenge began with a single photograph provided by @twone2. The snapshot offers a bird’s-eye view of an unknown location, taken sometime in 2019. The challenge was two-fold:
What is this place?
What has changed in its surroundings since the photo was taken?
As an added twist, @twone2 urged participants not to use reverse image search tools initially. For this blog post, I'll first walk you through my approach without using reverse search engines and then show you how I tackled the challenge with one.
If you want to try solving this challenge yourself, do it before reading my walkthrough!
Getting Started: Download and Initial Assessment
The first step was to download the image, a standard best practice in OSINT. This not only provides a clearer view of the picture but also ensures that the evidence is saved in case the online version gets taken down.
After downloading the image, I first wanted to check if there was any EXIF data attached that could have helped to identify roughly where the photo was taken (for those unfamiliar with EXIF data, make sure to check out this article for a more detailed overview). To determine if any EXIF data was attached to the image, I used the Fakenews Debunker by InVID & WeVerify, but any EXIF data tool would suffice for this step. Unfortunately, this photo did not have any EXIF data attached. Twitter, where the image was posted, tends to strip metadata from images, leaving us without these helpful clues.
Undeterred, I started my geospatial data gathering. The image revealed a large square with a distinctive pattern, surrounded by buildings constructed from white stone and multiple ingress and egress roads. A close examination under a magnifying tool unveiled some writings on the right side of the square that read "NENE TEREZA" (1).
Digging In: Location Analysis
The next step was to analyze the geospatial data to determine the location. I initially used Google Translate to decipher "NENE TEREZA", which translated to "Mother Theresa". Armed with this clue, I searched for squares named after Mother Theresa and found one - "Sheshi Nënë Tereza," situated in Tirana, Albania.
Heading over to Google Earth, I set the view to mimic the "bird's-eye view" from the challenge image and found that the location was a match! See the slider below for the comparison between the original challenge image (first image) and the Google Earth location (second image).
A Second Approach: Using Reverse Image Search
With the location now identified without reverse image search, I decided to replicate the process using this tool for practice. Starting with Google, I uploaded the downloaded image for a reverse search. Soon enough, I discovered a photo that showed similar features to the challenge image but from a different angle. Using Google Maps to compare the located spot (Sheshi Nënë Tereza) with the challenge image further confirmed the location.
Identifying Changes: The Final Puzzle Piece
Having successfully identified the location, I turned my attention to the second part of @twone2's challenge - determining what had changed around Sheshi Nënë Tereza since 2019.
Step 1: Gathering the Historical Data
To accomplish this, I utilized the historical satellite imagery available in Google Earth Pro. This powerful tool enables users to view archived satellite imagery, providing a bird’s-eye view of an area's evolution over time. Given the challenge photo was taken at some point in 2019, I decided to start from the earliest date in that year.
Step 2: Analyzing Changes in the Immediate Vicinity
Zooming in on Sheshi Nënë Tereza, I began a meticulous, image-by-image comparison, scouring nearly 20 satellite snapshots (which you can see below) taken over the course of 2019. It was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle with each image, a single piece of a larger chronological story. As I went through the images, I noticed a significant change: the addition of bike lanes around the square's outer edge (2). By comparing the most recent satellite images, it appears that the bike lanes were added sometime between April and October 2022.
Step 3: Broadening the Horizon & Unearthing Other Changes
But what if @twone2 meant changes outside the square's immediate vicinity? To cover all bases, I broadened my search area by raising my satellite viewing elevation to 1835ft (559m). This higher perspective allowed me to capture a wider view of the surrounding area and any potential changes in it.
The expanded view revealed a substantial change. A large building to the east of the square appeared in various stages of construction across the images from January, February, June, July, August, and October 2019. By December of that year, the building appeared complete. To verify this major change, I returned to Google Maps and hunted for a building that matched the one observed in the satellite images. My search led me to "Air Albania Stadium" (3). But when did it open? A quick Google search confirmed the stadium was officially opened in November 2019.
As I was validating the details of the Air Albania Stadium, I stumbled upon another interesting piece of information. Attached to the Stadium was the Marriott Tirana Hotel (4). A quick sidestep into further research revealed that this hotel was announced to be opening in early 2023, adding another layer of depth to the changes in the vicinity.
Step 4: Conclusions
Given these multiple discoveries, I could conclude that since the original photo was taken in 2019, there had been several significant changes in and around Sheshi Nënë Tereza.
In the immediate area of the square, bike lanes were added at some point between April and October 2022. Just to the East, the Air Albania Stadium was constructed and completed, with its grand opening in November 2019. Finally, the Marriott Tirana Hotel, a new addition to the Stadium, recently opened. However, without knowing the exact date the challenge photo was taken, we can't be sure if the image was captured before or after the stadium's completion.
Conclusions of the GEOINT Walkthrough
Solving @twone2’s geo-puzzle was a fun experience. It provided a hands-on opportunity to practice and build my GEOINT skills. If you're interested in honing your own geolocation abilities, I highly recommend trying this challenge or following my walkthrough as a guide.
This blog post is meant to be both educational and entertaining. It is not intended to infringe on @twone2's original challenge or the rights of any other parties involved.
While the primary author of this article is fully human, some sections were sprinkled with a dash of AI magic, courtesy of a popular, friendly AI assistant. But don't worry, we haven't reached the level of "Skynet" yet. No computers were harmed, no rogue AIs took control, and the author still had to do the heavy lifting of thinking, researching, and typing out the majority of the article.
So, if you found a particular turn of phrase charming or a sentence structure intriguing, there's a chance it was born from a harmonious collaboration of human and artificial intelligence. However, if you spot any typos or grammatical errors, those are all human.