One of the main attractions to OSINT is geospatial and imagery analysis. This type of information is used often in journalism and other cases where location matters. During my undergraduate education, I spent some time understanding the effects of climate change to remote areas in the Arctic. After extensively reading and writing about at-risk populations, I still found it difficult to truly visualize what it was like to be in those areas and to live under those conditions. I wondered how I could conceptualize this and allow others to share the same experience. At the time, topographical and height maps were difficult to find and my OSINT ability wasn’t as fine tuned as it is today. Now, I think I’m in the position to solve the aforementioned problem as well as provide a workflow to solve other problems while having a bit of fun. This post will look at harvesting height maps, converting them into Minecraft maps, and exploring the terrain of the areas of interest.
In a globalized world, geolocated information is becoming more prevalent and increasingly more valuable. It’s also becoming a major concern in data privacy circles. At a high level, there’s an inductive and deductive approach to the geolocation problem. You can start with a very broad area and narrow your way down to a specific location, or you can receive a very specific location and broaden it out to a large area. This example will take a very broad area and allow you to narrow it down with additional information. Let’s get started.
This fun OSINT lab only required three things: Sentinel Hub, World Painter, and Minecraft. As an alternative to Minecraft, you can use Cities: Skylines; both are roughly the same price. Sentinel Hub is a free tool that,among other things, extracts height maps based on a specified location. World Painter is a free tool that converts height maps to a file that Minecraft can read and allows you to customize. Finally, Minecraft is where the lab will take place after the required information is extracted. Let’s take a look at these in detail.
Sentinel Hub is a popular GEOINT or IMINT tool in the OSINT community. Its playground is free to use and it allows you to download high quality images from multiple satellites. In this example, we are going to use the DEM or digital elevation map. You can select it among the available datasets by clicking the satellite icon in the top right corner of the Sentinel Hub Playground. From there, you can select DEM Color, DEM Grayscale, or DEM Sepia. For this example, I used DEM Color. Once you’ve selected an area you want to study, go ahead and export the image by selecting the “Generate” button.
Your map should look something like this:
World Painter is a free tool that’s designed to make custom maps for MineCraft. The feature we are interested in is the import height map feature. First, download World Painter (Windows only) and get it up and running; it should only take a few minutes. Next, go to “File” > “Import new World” > “from height map…” Then, select the height map you downloaded from Sentinel Hub. You may notice your map doesn’t look desirable at first. You likely have land where it doesn’t need to be or water where it doesn’t need to be. No worries, you can adjust this by using the on board “Flood” or “Sponge” tools in the dashboard; you can identify each by hovering over the icons on the left hand side of the dashboard. Experiment with these tools and clean up your map.
You should end up with something like this:
Feel free to go back and adjust this later for better results. For now, we just want to get you into Minecraft with a Beta map and get you through the workflow.
Now that you’ve converted your height map to a file that Minecraft can use, go ahead and start Minecraft to get started. You may have to purchase this game if you want to complete this lab; the good news is that it’s fairly inexpensive. The reason I used Minecraft vs Cities: Skylines was I inferred the likelihood people already owned the game or knew someone who did was high. I’d recommend the PC version for optimal results. Once, you have everything uploaded, feel free to explore. Be creative and find great ways to use this process for research, for demonstrations, or for fun.
The example I used for exploring areas affected by climate change is one example. What about something more practical for OSINT investigators? The first thing that came to mind was the BBC Africa story using OSINT to identify a murder in a village. Could BBC have created a Minecraft map as a way of identifying or verifying the mountain range? Let’s reverse engineer this to better understand it.
Here’s a look at the coordinates they concluded based on the mountain range:
Here’s a DEM Map generated by Sentinel Hub of the same area:
Now here’s a Minecraft readable map using World Painter:
I’d challenge anyone to use this method to find the exact spot the crime took place and stand there. I’d also be curious to see if you can see the same shape outlined by BBC of the mountain range found in the photos within Minecraft. I may follow up on this challenge myself to see if I can make it happen. Thanks for reading, I hope you have fun with this OSINT lab and discover new ways of implementing it.