It’s one of the world’s biggest open secrets that Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine. But here’s a great example of the wrong way to prove it.

On July 31, Buzzfeed published a story covering the exploits of Sgt. Alexander Sotkin, a communications specialist in the Russian army and — if his Instagram account is anything to go by — an avid user of social media.

In the story, Buzzfeed claims that Sotkin inadvertently blew Russia’s covert operation in eastern Ukraine by uploading two selfies of himself geotagged inside a rebel-held area of Ukraine to the north of Luhansk.

If that weren’t enough, Buzzfeed alleges that one of Sotkin’s photos suggest he was working on an SA-11 Buk surface-to-air-missile system — the same type as the one Russian-backed separatists used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

When taken at face value, the evidence looks compelling. The photos had geotagged data—apparently using Instagram’s photo map service which Buzzfeed say is “highly accurate.”

But take a deeper look, and the specific claims Buzzfeed makes don’t add up.

Russian Buk-M2 launcher outside Moscow on Aug. 27, 2013. AP photo

The devil is in the geotagging

First of all, Instagram’s photo map service uses whatever data the user feeds it—and that data is not always accurate.

There is no way one can prove what device Sotkin used to geotag his location, or if he enabled GPS. However, we do know that GPS is not the only way to get a user’s location.

GPS is usually highly accurate. But when it’s not available and there are no Wi-Fi hotspots nearby, the phone will always switch to the next best thing — cell phone tower triangulation. This is the means by which a cell phone contacts nearby cell phone towers in order to pinpoint its own position.

A cell phone tower has three antennas arranged in a triangle. Each antenna covers a radius of 120 degrees. This way, a cell phone tower can always tell from which direction a cell phone is communicating from.

After establishing contact, a cell phone can make an educated guess as to its location using a combination of signal strength and the overall distance between itself and the tower. If there is more than one tower in range, then the phone will communicate with them as well and use the results to triangulate where it is.

The more towers there are, the more accurate the result.

While ingenious, this method doesn’t come without downsides. The fewer towers there are, or the more distance between the phone and the tower, then the accuracy with which your device can approximate its location falls dramatically. If there is only one tower nearby, then the best hope is a basic distance calculation from the tower to the device.

There’s another problem. Eastern Ukraine isn’t covered with decent cell phone infrastructure. A check of Ukraine’s top three cell phone providers —Life, Kyivstar and MTS—shows that coverage in the countryside to the east and north of Luhansk is patchy, at best.

This suggests the possibility that much of the population in that area is being served by fewer cell phone towers than would normally be acceptable in urban areas.

Meanwhile, in Russia

Another clue we can gleam from Sotkin’s Instagram uploads are his copious use of hashtags. In this case, one hashtag stands out in particular: #учения2014 or #exercise2014.

As we already know, the Russian military has been carrying exercises close to its western borders ever since the crisis in Ukraine flared up. Sotkin’s uploads with the #учения2014 hashtag are near the Russian border with Ukraine—mostly from the small town of Voloshino in the Rostovskaya Oblast of southern Russia.

A military exercise can involve rapid movement on short notice. It’s possible Sotkin’s unit was on the move in the last week of June and first week of July when his two alleged uploads on Ukrainian soil took place—in the village of Krasnyi Derkul in eastern Ukraine.

The distance between Voloshino and the two villages as the crow flies is around five and a half to six miles. Krasnyi Derkul is an ideal place for a Ukrainian cellular provider to site a cell phone tower to cover the area along the border with Russia.

Sotkin uploaded the first photograph ostensibly showing his location in Ukraine on June 30, after he posted two others complaining about boredom and lack of power for his tablet. The last photo was the one positioned in Ukraine. He tagged all three with #учения2014 which shows that he was on exercises when he snapped those selfies.

Most likely, the varying accuracy of cell tower triangulation meant that his device geotagged his photos with wildly different location coordinates based on whatever tower it could communicate with. At the least, the evidence is nowhere close to being reliable enough to say Sotkin was fighting in Ukraine.

Not convincing enough

By Aug. 1, major media outlets around the world picked up the story and ran with it.

And the story is gaining attention despite other obvious flaws—such as simple translation errors. One glaring example is the allegation that Sotkin said in one Instagram upload that he was working on a Buk missile launcher.

However, some native Russian speakers responded angrily. Artem Russakovskii—a tech blogger and founder of the Android news site Android Police—posted an angry rebuttal noting the word “buk” is also Russian slang for a “notebook” computer.

Likewise, Sotkin used an emoji next to the word “buk.” Guess what emoji he used? The symbol for a computer.

It’s no surprise Russian troops are operating covertly in eastern Ukraine. That includes armored units seen on video in recent days crossing pontoon bridges laid over the Seversky Donets river marking the border between Russia and Ukraine. Russian paratroopers have also uploaded photos of themselves posing next to dead Ukrainian soldiers to social networking sites.

But each piece of evidence has to be individually verified. Don’t assume everything you read on the Internet is true—including geotagged data.

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    War Is Boring

    From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

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