Intelligence is often referred to as a cloak and dagger tradecraft. Associated with mystery, intrigue, espionage, and secrecy it has long been the subject of misconceptions.
Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is by definition not involved with secret or classified material. The specialty nonetheless carries a lot of misapprehensions. So many that the perceptions of OSINT in the public eyes range from overrated Google searchers to corporate-led conspiracies.
In this post, we debunk some of the most common misconceptions about OSINT and offer a fair assessment of the tradecraft, its capabilities, and its risks.
1. OSINT production is simple to do
Traditionally, OSINT has been neglected by national security agencies. Therefore it is often dismissed as nothing more than news watching or searching the web.
The overt nature of OSINT makes it somehow easier and more accessible. Yet, covert intelligence gathering still remains complex tradecraft to master.
Ultimately, intelligence, whether covert or overt, is about providing the end client with timely actionable forecasts that support their decision-making.
As such, intelligence research is a very deliberate and methodical activity. Information is collected against strict sets of indicators that inform the risk at hand which is then carefully assessed.
From the source of the information to its content, analysts assess multiple factors. They evaluate access, bias, reliability, and agenda of the sources as well as the risk relevance, factual accuracy, and indicator value of the information.
In terms of analysis, finding the right insights to inform a forecast is a complex exercise, too. Analysts rarely stumble upon readily available intelligence golden nuggets. Instead, they put together the puzzle. Building a body of evidence and connecting it to their domain expertise allows them to see the whole picture and draw conclusions.
2. OSINT means collecting all available data
Another associated misconception is that OSINT is about gathering all available data. However, such data hoarding is more counter-productive than anything else.
There are so many resources and so many terabytes of data, that it’s easy to get lost if you decide to use them all.
Instead, OSINT analysts need to have clear objectives laid out beforehand. Then, they methodically collect, assess, and analyse that information against the outlined indicators.
One of the biggest challenges faced by OSINT analysts is the constant information overload. A good analyst knows how to isolate the valuable signal from the noise.
The ability to identify risk-relevant information may stem from training in identifying and picking up such. But it can also be due to extensive domain expertise. From one country to the next, similar events or development will have very different impacts. The ability to contextualise intelligence signals with broad background knowledge about the issue at hand is essential to produce accurate, timely, and risk-relevant forecasts.
3. OSINT collection and production is a privilege of the professionals
We have just highlighted the need for tradecraft skills and domain expertise. Still, that doesn’t mean OSINT is the sole monopoly of highly trained and knowledgeable professionals.
While it is true that the tradecraft is not easy to master, one needs very little to start. The internet is full of free or low-cost resources. And some software provides special features for beginners, hinting them towards progress. One only needs to be curious and enthusiastic enough to start exploring the field.
As we have previously shown, not every investigation requires top-notch professionals. After all, even the best started off without knowing much. Practice, learning, and experience got them to their current positions.
4. All OSINT practitioners have a similar skillset
There are actually a few ways we can distinguish OSINT practitioners. They all exist under the umbrella of that name, however, their skills and expertise might differ immensely.
Firstly, there are the domain experts and the technical ones.
The domain experts are those who have accumulated extensive knowledge in their specific field and can employ it to their advantage. Regional experts spend their career learning and understanding political and business drivers, key players, and hundreds of more local subtleties.
Then there are the technical experts. They might know a lot about intelligence gathering but their main asset is their capability to use sophisticated software.
In addition, new intelligence techniques have emerged, requiring specialist skill sets. In particular, the democratisation of geospatial tools has led to a rise in the importance of GEOINT (geospatial intelligence). Another emerging and fast-growing field is social media intelligence (SOCMINT).
Previously covert methods are increasingly being leveraged in an overt way. Imagery intelligence (IMINT) used to be the privy of state agencies. However, technological advances have institutionalised imagery capabilities. Even though still relatively expensive, commercially available imagery provides outstanding resolution (1m/pxl) and level of details.
For each of these subspecialties, analysts need to develop a wide range of skills, both in terms of investigative techniques and technical skills.
5. OSINT is always free
This is a common misconception associated with OSINT, and it is often done to tarnish its value. It is true that the advent of the internet and the subsequent explosion of (free) information has transformed the source landscape for OSINT researchers.
However, solely relying on free resources can be problematic.
Not all information is equal. An in-depth, documented journalistic investigation is not the same as an opinion piece by some commentator. And sometimes you have to pay to get the information you need.
The other increasing problem with free information is that it can be easily manipulated for disinformation or deception.
In addition, OSINT analysts may have to pay to access tools (analytics platforms, data visualisation software) or services (social media analytics).
The technical cost, though, is often a function of the technical proficiency of the analyst. If the analyst proficient in a coding language such as Python they will be able to build most of their tool kit.
6. OSINT is less reliable than classified information
This is a misconception that goes back to the very beginning of OSINT. However, over time, open-source intelligence has proven as reliable as classified information. In some cases, it even performed better.
In today's day and age, in situations like an active shooter incident, open-source material provides much more value than classified information. With technologies like smartphones being ubiquitous, access to on-the-ground raw information has never been easier or faster.
Examples of OSINT investigations being more accurate and precise than those using confidential sources are all around us. Confirmation of these are the Good Judgement Project, the IHS Markit Conflict Monitor, Bellingcat’s investigations as well as many more.
7. OSINT is solely online
While the internet has become the leading source of open-source information, it is not the only one.
Good OSINT analysts will always seek to verify and cross-reference information. As such they will use whatever resources they can access whether online or offline. From library archives, academic papers, public records, or hard copies of newspapers and magazines.
In addition, analysts can also leverage traditionally covert means like satellite imagery and human intelligence (HUMINT).
8. OSINT is used mainly by intelligence for secret things
Open-source intelligence is certainly indispensable in the intelligence’ arsenal. In fact, OSINT has taken an increasingly central role in the modern all-intelligences approach.
However, OSINT is far from supporting solely covert intelligence. In fact, OSINT methods have permeated in a wide range of fields such as academia, marketing, business, finance, media, etc.
Collecting discrete pieces of data, assembling them in one place, filtering what’s important to create a narrative showing critical insights. That is the usual process associated with OSINT production. And it is very much the process that most professionals in the knowledge economy follow.
It turns out that OSINT is much more widespread than imagined and quite a lot of people are using it without realising.
Because it originated in the confidential world of intelligence, OSINT has always been wrapped in an aura of mystery and fantasies.
But as the discipline becomes increasingly mainstream it is important to deconstruct misconceptions and educate. Both the OSINT analysts and the wider public need to know what the tradecraft is and is not, and what can and cannot be done with OSINT.
See our approach to OSINT collection and production here.