The challenges of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) in an increasingly connected age

Apr 14 2017

The challenges of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) in an increasingly connected age

The systematic gathering of information from publicly available sources can be classified into open source information (OSINF), and open source intelligence (OSINT) or data developed from Intel analysis of public sources. And, while open sources aren’t the only source for intelligence data, they are commonly the first source of information.


The Evolution of OSINT
The exploitation of openly and legally available information is as ancient as the use of intelligence as a tool for collecting information with regard to national defense and security. In 1941, the United States established the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which replaced the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service (FBMS). It pioneered new capabilities for transcribing, monitoring, archiving, interpreting, and streaming information from foreign media sources.


Afterward, throughout the Cold War, U.S. analysts experienced an information overload. What turned out to be obvious, even before the start of the 21st century, was that the information revolution was dramatically affecting the open source analyst job. Intel agencies in the U.S. wrestled, at the beginning of the Cold War, to manage the vast amounts of publications, academic records, and official information about the Soviet Union. At the end of the 20th century, new scientific advances—mainly the Internet and satellite technology—were simply considered disconcerting and unpredictable. It is evident that the OSINT of today has changed considerably from the 1940s and FBIS era.


In recent years, there has been an increased demand from Congress for stronger investments into OSINT. Nonetheless, some still underline that the principal mission of intelligence is to collect and analyze secrets. Yet, an agreement currently exists where OSINT should be methodically collected and to serve as a vital element of intelligence. The determination was reaffirmed in 2005 by creating the National Open Source Center (NOSC). Its principal tasks involve the “collection, analysis and research, training, and information technology management to facilitate government-wide access and use. (Best & Cumming, 2007, p. 12). The NOSC organization integrated and expanded FBIS and was positioned under the management of the CIA. However, it was intended to offer a center of expertise for the whole government. The NOSC can also be commissioned by other intelligence agencies for particular explorations, research, or investigations.


OSINT Benefits and Weaknesses
OSINT is commonly less costly, and it presents fewer risks than other intelligence collection methods and sources such as human intelligence (HUMINT). OSINT can also bring awareness regarding other developments that may have been overlooked or not considered a priority.


The biggest benefit of OSINT is its availability. It also requires less work than HUMINT or the other technical INTs. OSINT is extremely beneficial as well toward organizing clandestine data into a broader context. OSINT has been handy for uncovering foreign news that is not available in official outlets.


OSINT has also been exceptionally valuable in disaster relief and humanitarian aid. Information gathered from SMS (texting) and social networking channels have made a difference among life and death following a catastrophe or disaster. However, these new uses of OSINT form a new issue. Today, involvement and participation from so many government agencies, nations, and NGOs generate a massive organizational and coordination problem.


On the other hand, volume is OSINT’s main weakness. And while computers have improved its information analysis capabilities, some argue that the total of resulting Intel has not. Moreover, in comparison to other INTs, OSINT may become challenging to operate with regard to deception because of its variability. Another important weakness of OSINT is the likelihood of misinformation, clandestine messages, or plain rubbish. Possibly one of the worst downsides of OSINT is that the information revolution affected the capabilities of the Intelligence Community (IC) toward executing its usual role of offering policymakers exclusive information.


With regard to the latest Web-based media sources, its quantity, diversity, and speed of information expand by the minute. The challenge today is not to “connect the dots” as before but rather to systematize the flow of information. It is about differentiating between “noise and signs,” plus authenticating sources without delay and in a timely manner in order to equally support policymakers and the military. On the other hand, volume can also help the analyst to uncover biased or deceptive information, as he can compare numerous sources. The endless transcripts that need to be analyzed overwhelm today’s analysts, and thus, the pursuit for more efficient analytic tools is still a big challenge for the IC. As a result, the IC is working to create visualization tools that will allow analysts to identify crucial information more efficiently.


What Lies Ahead for OSINT?
OSINT supporters believe that it will enhance the intelligence cycle through its vast volume and capabilities. In the future, we can expect OSINT to continue as a key factor in Intel operations, possibly more than in previous years. While it is true that OSINT has some adverse qualities, they cannot be considered critical. Some experts argue that if used correctly, OSINT can be an Intel multiplier.


OSINT will endure as a vital aspect in intelligence gathering and analysis, especially in this digital era of social media, mobile apps and artificial intelligence. As the world of tech continues to grow and develop over time, we’ll see OSINT data being used in everything from security threats to credit card theft. In addition, we will see an upswing of OSINT usage in other industries looking for a competitive edge, such as insurance, uncovering new and exciting ways in which organizations can benefit from data.

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