Challenges and Capabilities Increase the Role of Open Source Intelligence

April 1, 2014
By Kent R. Schneider

Open source intelligence, which is gained from the public domain, is certainly not new. Intelligence professionals have used open sources as long as intelligence has been gathered and utilized. So what is different today? Why is open source intelligence (OSINT) getting more attention and the commitment of more resources?

First, the volume of available open source information has increased dramatically as technology has made the creation and dissemination of content easier. The Internet is the source of much of this growth. Traditional newspapers have been digitized all over the globe.

But the real growth has come with nontraditional media: newsletters, blogs and social networks. Anyone with access to the Internet can generate content in any of these media. That content can be text, graphics, photographs or video—or any combination of these. Even more important, anyone else with access to the Internet can retransmit this content. Depending on the content and breadth of interest, this information quickly can be distributed regionally, nationally or internationally. This allows the knowledge or opinions of an individual to become widely known almost instantly. Similarly, news can move at an incredible rate.

All of this, of course, creates an unprecedented quantity of information along with the difficulty of analyzing that information to determine what is relevant and what is not; what is real and what is fiction. The mechanism to collect, store, analyze and disseminate this avalanche of information is mind-boggling. Further complicating the problem, the fruits of OSINT must be correlated with intelligence gathered through classified means. These other disciplines have exploded as we have developed better tools for collection and analysis. The availability of analytical capacity and expertise to “connect the dots” is a challenge. Bringing together all the products of intelligence in a useful way requires advanced analytical tools and exceptional expertise.

The second major change is the nature of global threats and international relationships. The growth of asymmetrical warfare and popular uprising puts a premium on OSINT, since the traditional state-sponsored structures and networks often are absent. Much of the information is shared over the Internet because formal and informal organizations, as well as popular movements, have found cellphone information to be vulnerable. Clever use of the Internet, particularly within social networks, often is used to shield these communications. The nature of social networking, allowing information to “go viral” quickly, serves these groups well.

At the same time, such use makes a wealth of information available through OSINT if an analyst can capture the relevant information and correlate it in a timely manner. In many popular movements, organization is accomplished through social networking. In many cases, this also is the only way to understand what is happening among the population. Coalition cooperation can be critical in such analysis, since volume and language issues make it difficult for a single nation to collect, store, analyze and disseminate all the relevant data.

OSINT has been particularly useful in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) missions as well. After a disaster, when communications and access are often difficult, information gained from texting or social networking can make the difference between life and death as critical needs become known. Because HADR missions often include the forces of many nations and the involvement of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), social networking may be the best way for all involved to communicate in the early stages of the mission.

These new applications of OSINT point to another problem. The number of countries, governmental agencies and NGOs involved in today’s operations creates a huge issue of coordination; where to consolidate information; how to get it there; and who needs to be involved in dissemination. Systems and networks were not designed originally to share information among such a diverse set of players. The Afghan Mission Network, developed in Afghanistan for both NATO and non-NATO forces and other agencies, is an example of the types of architectures and networks that are required to communicate among, in the case of Afghanistan, more than 50 nations and many military and nonmilitary organizations. Information must be moved to the necessary players and security and access rules must be developed and implemented.

As with many innovative applications of capabilities, OSINT offers a unique set of challenges. Yet, its corresponding opportunities far outweigh the hurdles that must be overcome to realize its full potential.


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