Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is an intelligence discipline that generates insight from publicly available information. The sources from this information come from traditional media like newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and television, as well as overhead imagery, photos, and specialized publications like think-tank studies and journal articles. OSINT is more prevalent today because the internet and technological revolution make information easier to acquire and disseminate than ever before. Although the internet and technology provide enhanced capabilities, OSINT is not a new discipline. Analysts have scrutinized foreign media and government documents for decades before the internet. So, if OSINT is not a new discipline, and it generates intelligence from information available to anyone, then why is it important to America’s spy agencies? The short answer: open source intelligence is particularly useful because of its ability to save resources, and its inherently public nature allows for useful strategic intelligence sharing. Now, the long answer…
Open source intelligence’s biggest strength is its ability to save resources. Today, OSINT software programs and tools provide the intelligence community similar capabilities for less money than comparable classified programs. OSINT gives analysts the same information to produce intelligence products at a lower price than similarly classified collection methods. This allows the community to focus this saved-spending on classified collection activities that are highly specialized in nature, better balancing cost with capabilities – a crucial consideration in the world of sequestration and looming public debt crises. Additionally, a significant portion of OSINT activities do not necessarily require cleared personnel. This also saves money and time, as employees do not need to undergo the painstakingly long and costly security clearance process. On top of reducing costs, OSINT capabilities develop rapidly in the private sector. Therefore, the intelligence community can focus its efforts on building and refining classified intelligence collection systems, while private industry develops the OSINT tools. Because OSINT tools have increased in capability due to private sector innovation, open source intelligence can accomplish missions previously requiring classified collection. Examples of tasks accomplished by OSINT include social media analytics, commercial overhead imagery and analysis, as well as ceasefire violation monitoring – like what we at Praescient Analytics performed for the Syrian Civil War. Tasking OSINT elements with these missions frees valuable classified intelligence programs to focus on other mission sets, enabling a more comprehensive understanding of operating environments and areas of interest.
Open source intelligence also adds value to the intelligence community by enabling much broader dissemination networks. Because OSINT is not classified, or classified at a comparably low level, OSINT can be shared across the United States defense and intelligence community. The broad sharing of information enables mission integration and saves time. For example, a targeting report for Air Force pilots produced with OSINT from the Defense Intelligence Agency, does not have be “sanitized” to remove Top Secret information before it is briefed for Pilots cleared at the Secret level. This is especially important if the mission is time sensitive, like if the target of a strike is mobile. Similarly, OSINT intelligence reports can be shared with the staff members and aides of congressional leaders, since they do not have the same Top Secret clearance as their boss. OSINT’s unclassified nature also allows for intelligence produced by America’s spy agencies to be shared with foreign nations without exposing sensitive sources and methods. This improves foreign relations, strengthens alliance networks, and can prevent catastrophes around the world. Moreover, because OSINT does not expose sources and methods, commercially produced OSINT products can be used by the American government to criticise and put pressure on foreign nations for their hostile intelligence actions. For example, Mandiant famously released a report on the Chinese PLA Unit 61398 that was using cyber-attacks to steal information from American companies. This report was used by American officials to name and shame China for its malevolent activity without exposing the activities of the NSA and DHS.
Open Source intelligence benefits stem from the fact that is available in the public domain. However, if OSINT tools are available to the United States, they are also available to the enemy-both enemy nations and hostile non-state actors. Infamously, open source tools are used to conduct aggressive information operations on social media. Publicly available overhead imagery allows hostile actors with relatively low technical capability to map American positions in a combat environment. In cyberspace, powerful open source tools like Maltego and Metasploit allow hackers to attack both commercial, government, and private networks.
Although OSINT is not a new intelligence discipline, and it does not possess the same aura of secrecy of other INTs, open source intelligence is a valuable asset to the American intelligence and defense community. It allows for critical cost and resource savings and enables wider sharing of intelligence products. Praescient Analytics understands the importance of OSINT. This is why we routinely partner with some of the best OSINT tools available, and in some cases, create our own. OSINT’s prevalence will only increase, as will its capabilities; and Praescient Analytics will continue to push the boundaries of what our open source intelligence tools can do.