The rapid expansion of social media, technology and increasing ease with which people can now access the internet has transformed contemporary society. From an intelligence perspective, these developments have opened a gold mine of information for analysts from which to draw upon in their analysis of developments on a wide range of security issues – from terrorism and nuclear proliferation to piracy and human trafficking. However, as organisations who naturally favour covert sources, intelligence agencies across the world have only in the past few years begun to properly expand their ability to make the most of this information gold mine – but they shouldn’t get carried away.
Information gathered from these publicly available sources, as well as things like academic journals, news articles etc., is referred to as open source information or OSINF, and is estimated to contain about 80% of what intelligence analysts need to produce their analysis. OSINF has been collected for decades and has traditionally been used to provide context to covert sources which provide the valuable details. Important to note is that OSINF is not the same thing as open source intelligence (OSINT). OSINF becomes OSINT once it has been systematically assessed, evaluated and is actionable.
Undeniably, OSINT is powerful, cost effective and easily shared as it is available to anyone who can find it. This is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Elliot Higgins, who from his laptop on his lounge in west England was able to attribute the 2013 Syrian chemical weapons attack on civilians to the Assad Regime. Further evidence of its power can be seen in the work of the Atlantic Council in solely using social media and other opens source information to attribute the shooting down of MH17 in 2014, to fighters linked to the Russian military. Importantly, OSINT is also able to provide useful tactical intelligence on the location of enemy targets such as the case of the ‘Kiwi Jihadi’ in Syria who posted as many as forty tweets without turning of his location service, which provided western intelligence agencies with vital intelligence on ISIS movements, safe houses and fighters.
There are also downsides to OSINT as well, the sheer volume of information that needs to be viewed, deliberate spreading of misinformation by the enemy and the fact that not all information is available in open sources. This last criticism, that not all information is publicly available, is what I want to focus on briefly. While I have sung the praises of OSINT, and it is certainly a powerful tool, its rise to prominence needs to remain framed within the context of all-source analysis. That is, it needs to be used in addition to and to complement, and not replace traditional covert sources, as only together can intelligence agencies address the broad range of threats they are tasked with addressing. An excellent example of why this is the case was how the US found and killed Osama bin Laden. After a decade of searching, he was eventually found in rural Pakistan, thanks mainly to covert human and signals sources. What this case highlights is that there is a role for all types of sources, which is something which should not be lost as the profile and use of OSINT becomes more prominent and widespread.