The Future of Open Source Intelligence

By Corey Velgersdyk
Senior Staff Writer
January 24, 2010

The world is becoming increasingly transparent and intelligence agencies need to learn to operate in world with fewer and fewer secrets.

LexisNexis hosted the second round table discussion in its series on open source intelligence (OSINT) at the National Press Club on December 15. The keynote address was given by Doug Naquin, the director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI) Open Source Center (OSC). It also featured Chet Lunner, a former Deputy Undersecretary of Intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security; Thomas Sanderson, a deputy director at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS); Suzanne Spaulding, a Principal with Bingham Consulting Group; and Jeff Stein, SpyTalk columnist for The Washington Post.

Open source intelligence comes from unclassified sources that are publically available. This intelligence comes from a wide variety of sources that include foreign newspapers, public data, academic conferences, maps, and even web-based community sites. Despite its public availability, OSINT is far cry from a simple trip to a search engine. It, like all forms of intelligence, requires collection, exploitation, and analysis. The United States primary office for OSINT is the previously mentioned Open Source Center, which operates out of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) although it falls under the offices of the DNI. Many of the other intelligence agencies also operate open source offices to meet their specific requirements.

While the United States has used open source intelligence as long as it has had operating intelligence agencies, in many ways OSINT is still in its early stages. The role of OSINT and how it fits together with other forms of intelligence is still being worked out. While the OSC may be the center of OSINT, it cannot be a monolithic organization responsible for all OSINT because the requirements of its various clients are too disperse. The intelligence that is valuable for the policymakers on Capitol Hill is likely useless for the Department of Homeland Security. The OSC will likely be most valuable as part of a network that can meet specific needs rather than a stand-alone office creating generic intelligence products.

What is certain is that OSINT’s role in the future can only grow larger. The Information Age has unleashed an avalanche of potential intelligence sources. News sources, public census data, academic works, and white papers are among the many unclassified sources that OSINT can collect, exploit, and analyze. For better or worse, it has become increasingly difficult for governments around the world to protect their secrets. The OSC and other OSINT providers can take advantage of this situation and provide better and better intelligence for policymakers.

Another important feature of OSINT is that it can be produced outside of government intelligence agencies. Unclassified sources are available to anyone with the desire to collect them. Much of what think tanks, journalists, and academics accomplish could be considered OSINT. One product mentioned at the round table is a program run by Thomas Sanderson in which the CSIS finds journalists, businessmen, academics, etc. with extensive firsthand experience with a region or issue and poses a question to them. These individuals provide answers based solely on primary sources that are compiled and presented to relevant policymakers. The program has been deemed valuable and met with approval from the government.

In a world where it is as easy to access the China Daily or the Daily Telegraph as it is the Washington Post, it should not be a surprise that open source intelligence is on the rise. There are, however, several challenges that prevent OSINT from providing as much value as it could. First is the misconception that because OSINT is derived from unclassified sources it has no more value to a policymaker than what is found in the newspapers or on CNN. The reality is that OSINT comes from a wide variety of sources and is far more nuanced and complex than it is given credit.

The second danger is an over-reliance on individual sources. As it becomes increasingly easy to share information, the trap is that small amounts of information can be spread and reach a wide range of sources. Single accounts that are picked up by multiple news agencies soon give the appearance of being multiple sources. If these stories are then cyclically reported the problem is multiplied as each new report adds weight to the original account. This is similar to the problems caused by an over-reliance on the source CURVEBALL that led to the Iraq WMD intelligence failure.

These challenges aside, the future of OSINT looks bright. Better collaboration on OSINT and its inclusion in all-source intelligence makes for intelligence products that are more valuable to policymakers. Policymakers and other intelligence branches are being made increasingly aware of the potential value of OSINT. While the exact role of OSINT has yet to be determined, its value will make sure that there will always be a place for it in the intelligence community.

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