Open source intelligence for more than spying and journalism

open source intelligence
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Open source has played an important role in software development over the last thirty years. It also matters in some other areas, such as intelligence. Open source intelligence has become increasingly important – especially since 9/11, but recent wars in Syria and Ukraine have made it more well known. Can open source intelligence expand to become much more systematic in tracking and predicting world events?

Bellingcat is an investigative journalism organization become the best-known user of open source intelligence. Bellingcat started in 2014 by investigating weapons used in the Syrian war. It analyzed photos from the war, trying to not only identify weapons and items in them, but also confirm the photo’s location.

Later Bellingcat became especially famous after it discovered who was guilty of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Skripal poisoning, and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. In those cases, Bellingcat combined information from many sources – not just pure open source intelligence, but also information from Russian passport and travel databases.

On the whole, open source intelligence has been the most important data source for Bellingcat. This  open source intelligence consists of data from many sources, including social media updates, satellite photos, photos and information people are willing to share.

Most intelligence data is already public

But of course, open source intelligence is much more than Bellingcat. It even has its own acronym: OSINT. Some countries have laws and regulations for OSINT. For example, in the US, the law defines OSINT as “intelligence derived from publicly available information, as well as other unclassified information that has limited public distribution or access.” After 9/11, the CIA launched an open-source directorate. Now US spy agencies have a foundation for this kind of activity.

Collecting intelligence from public sources is nothing new – it has been said that during the Cold War era, 80% of information collected by the intelligence services came from public sources, like newspapers, media, public documents and public speeches. What has changed during the last twenty years is that technology has developed significantly to enable collection of a lot of data that was not available earlier.

Publicly available satellite photos and videos, radar information, social media content, web cameras, public government data, academic databases and many other sources have made a lot of new data available. Nowadays, basically anyone can use powerful tools to search and combine data from many sources. This is what makes open source intelligence such a significant development.

Is the world safer or more dangerous with open source intelligence?

Has open source intelligence made the world safer or more dangerous? Opinions are sharply divided. Some people say open source intelligence can hamper secret diplomatic negotiations that have sometimes been important to solve conflicts. When all parties can see the other’s actions, they must make countermoves rapidly, which can escalate quickly.

However, another opinion is that open source intelligence can prevent parties from taking action – or at least enable the public to see what they’re doing them early, which consequently makes it harder for them to prepare for something secretly. For example, last winter we saw public information that Russia had amassed a lot of troops and weapons at the Ukraine border. Nonetheless, many parties didn’t want to believe Russia would (or could) actually start a large-scale invasion.

The Ukraine war is also an example of where military personnel become sources of open source intelligence when they publish information on social media. There are even examples of how some Russian soldiers published photos of the entire route from their military base to a battlefield. As a result, such information could be helpful to anyone who seeks to determine which troops are used and how their logistics work. It also looks like some soldiers have published photos that could be used against them as  evidence in war crimes cases.

Opportunities for more systematic models

Clearly, open source intelligence is already very important for investigative journalism and for intelligence services. But it can be much more in the future. Nowadays, a lot of this information is still analyzed partly manually.

When there is so much data available all the time, it is also possible to automate many analyses, and we’re starting to detect unusual events automatically and making various predictions based on data. This in turn could also expand the use of data and data analyses. For example, companies could better evaluate risks to their supply chains. Also, investment funds could evaluate risks for their funds, and companies could take into account the latest information in their investment decisions.

This requires complex data models, as well as the ability to combine information from many sources and understand the dependency between different events and objects. But at least for certain purposes, this is already very feasible. It is more important to make sure that some parties can start developing this systematically and find good business models for it. It could be something like Palantir, but based more on open source software and intelligence, and more transparent.

Open source software has changed the software industry. Open source intelligence has become an important tool for investigative journalism and intelligence agencies. But when the use of data is automated better, open source intelligence can be applied to many other use cases, including business. There is so much information available in the world nowadays. The question really is: who can make better models and tools to utilize it systematically?

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