A user named Roma, a prolific member of Russia's most popular social networking site, leaves a digital trail a mile long. It is made up of pictures of Russian military jets, idling on a little-used airfield in western Syria.
The photos – hundreds of them, posted by Roma and myriad other users – surface on Instagram and on VK, the Russian version of Facebook. The first of these photos appeared just hours after Russia began bombing rebel-held Syrian territory this month, well before many media outlets and even some governments had confirmed the details of the incursion. They are, in many ways, the first visual evidence of a dangerous development in the world's deadliest continuing conflict.
From the earthquake in Nepal in April to the current refugee crisis in Europe, a new digital phenomenon has created a unique way of collecting real-time information from the front lines of the world's most volatile hot spots.
For years, journalists, law-enforcement organizations and intelligence agencies have scoured through social media posts for information about rapidly unfolding global events – the idea being that the people first to relay information about an incident are the ones who happen to be around when it happens, and more often than not, those people have Twitter and Facebook accounts. But in recent years, more and more social media sites have started "geo-tagging" their users' posts – embedding detailed information about where in the world those tweets and posts were sent.
The result is a new kind of map – a twinning of social media posts and geographic data to create what is perhaps the most instantaneous repository of real-time information about wars, natural disasters and other global crises.
"We had no idea how much info was out there," says Karl Swannie, CEO of Echosec, a tiny Victoria-based startup that has become, in the span of a year and a half, one of the world's leading providers of geographically mapped social media data.
"It turns out, people are more likely to take a picture before they run away."
Quietly, Echosec has become an indispensable resource for law-enforcement agencies and media outlets looking for instantaneous information on global events. What began just last year as a simple social media search engine staffed by just four employees is now a 14-person operation – catering to the sort of people who spend countless hours monitoring the social media posts of Islamic State fighters and Russian soldiers.
But Echosec's success has also exposed another reality of the social media age – the old adage "loose lips sink ships" is far less strictly followed by those with a Twitter account.
A quick search of some of the world's most heavily guarded military installations on Echosec instantly brings up dozens of posts and photos from areas such as the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Even North Korea, a virtual black hole of Internet activity, shows signs of illicit social media life.
"It's amazing," Mr. Swannie says. "We go look at some place like Fort McMurray, where all these companies have spent huge amounts of money on physical fences – but there's no digital fences."
The service is still far from perfect. Given the sheer volume of social media posts EchoSec monitors, it is often difficult to separate the information from the noise. In one town in western Syria – the site of fierce fighting between the Islamic State and its regional enemies – many of the most revealing posts about the conflict are buried under an avalanche of election-related tweets by a user who appears to be Syria's most enthusiastic Donald Trump supporter.
Still, the ability to organize social media information on a map – honing in on specific parts of the world where, more often than not, it is far too dangerous for most people to travel physically – represents a fundamental shift in how real-time information about global events is acquired.
Significantly, none of the information monitored by services such as Echosec resides in some secret database – every post, every picture, is drawn from a publicly accessible corner of the Internet.
"It reminds me of the early days of search engines," says Mr. Swannie, recalling a time when many Internet users didn't yet realize the information they posted on their websites could be seen by just about anyone in the world. "People need to get smarter about what they're posting – we weren't expecting to find this much information."