President's Commentary: The Ever-expanding Value of OSINT
Open-source intelligence (OSINT) may be entering its heyday due to the sheer volume of information available, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) to help sort through it, and the relatively low cost of collecting, analyzing, disseminating and exploiting it.
A lot has changed since 1941, when the Foreign Broadcast Information Service carefully followed foreign broadcasts for actionable information. In 1996, the Aspin-Brown Commission stated that U.S. access to open sources was “severely deficient,” and in 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended creating an open-source intelligence agency. The next year, John Negroponte, then-director of national intelligence, announced the creation of the Open Source Center, which later became the Open Source Enterprise within the Central Intelligence Agency.
Now, with myriad internet resources, including various social media platforms, vast amounts of open-source information are readily available, literally at our fingertips. During an online panel discussion presented by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in December 2021, Lauren Zabierek, then-executive director of the Cyber Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, observed that the internet itself is “one of the greatest sensors” ever invented.
We all recognize the vast amounts of raw data now available, but verifiable statistics are hard to come by. Bing’s AI-enabled chat engine noted the futility of trying to cite hard numbers. “There is no exact number on how much data is available for OSINT. The sheer volume of OSINT data dispersed across many different sources can make it difficult for security teams to extricate key data points,” Bing Chat stated. It did note, however, that The Wayback Machine, one of many publicly available OSINT tools, offers hundreds of billions of websites for searching.
Another significant and ongoing change since the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been the level of cooperation among the various intelligence agencies, the public and private sectors, and the United States and its allies and partners. That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement—there likely always will be—but progress toward greater cooperation has been significant and should remain a top priority.
During the June Intelligence and National Security Summit sponsored by AFCEA and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, experts recognized the need for greater synergy to reach OSINT’s full potential. Brad Ahlskog, chief of the Open Source Intelligence Integration Center at the Defense Intelligence Agency, highlighted efforts to better integrate OSINT across the intelligence community and with industry, academia and international allies and partners.
As Ahlskog pointed out, most of the world’s data isn’t in the intelligence community—it’s in the world. The goal, he added, is to balance the fusion of commercial, open source and intelligence community data.
In a June report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence senior advisory group recognized the value industry offers in the OSINT arena. The report assessed commercially provided data available to the general public, one form of OSINT. The widespread availability of commercially provided information “regarding the activities of large numbers of individuals is a relatively new, rapidly growing, and increasingly significant part of the information environment” in which the intelligence community must function, the report noted.
To be clear, all forms of intelligence from all sources provide value and enhance the security and defense of our nation. There should be no competition between classified and unclassified information sources. This is not an either/or proposition. The intelligence community’s ultimate goal is to provide decision-makers the best assessment based on the totality of information available—regardless of source.
Both classified intelligence and OSINT are vast and valuable resources. And making use of this overwhelming amount of information presents a significant challenge. But it is imperative to the national security of the United States and our partners and allies that we find new and innovative ways to take advantage of our most critical assets: cooperation, information sharing and synergy among individuals, organizations, public and private sectors, and nations.