The technological revolution has impacted all areas of intelligence – human intelligence (HUMINT), signal intelligence (SIGINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT), and so on. But by far, the area of intelligence that has benefited the most from the technological innovation is OSINT. While open source intelligence used to have a supporting function in the production of intelligence, its role has now become central. The rise of social media and the complexification of world politics are among the factors that helped this shift happen.
Internet and OSINT
Every day, more than 500 million tweets are posted, 294 billion of emails are sent, 4 petabytes of data are created on Facebook, and hundreds of terabytes of data are generated by IoT (i.e. data generated by sensors embedded in our phones, cars, and houses).
Twitter, Facebook, and other social media channels offer an insight into people’s uncensored thoughts, opinions as well as an opportunity to monitor real-time events and indicators. Social media monitoring and analysis has become a sub field of its own, SOCMINT - Social Media Intelligence - and has become an integral part of OSINT.
While not all online data is openly available, a huge chunk of it is, making finding risk-relevant information both much easier and more complicated at the same time.
Even secretive military missions can’t remain secret very long in the age of social media. During the US raid on the Bin Laden component in Abbottabad, Pakistan, an early indication of a military operation emerged on twitter when Sohaib Athar posted the following tweet:
The next day, pictures of the broken tail of the modified Blackhawk were posted online.
While a casual viewer would not necessarily have picked up the intelligence significance of the pictures, military kits specialists were immediately capable to identify the wreckage as a piece of the stealth UH-60, which is (still) classified Top-Secret.
While OSINT is increasingly leveraged to monitor traditional intelligence focus – intent and capabilities – its real value lies with the new intelligence requirements focused on soft indicators such as social and economic issues.
The changing nature of world politics and OSINT
Following the end of the Cold war and the increasing complexity of world politics, intelligence agencies had to expand their focus to a much wider range of issues. From social justice to economic well-being and level of health and education, a wide range of soft issues have come to the fore.
For instance, one of the factors underlying the Syrian civil war was the drought that affected the countryside in the years prior. In countries like Egypt, basic food stock availability and the price of basic foods are a critical indicator of civil unrest. Therefore, monitoring these soft indicators has become part of the routine risk assessment of any intelligence analyst.
While such information is openly accessible, it can rarely be immediately leveraged. It comes in all shapes and forms, uses different formats (audio, video, text, signal, etc.) and is produced by individuals and organisations with widely different methods and agendas.
Hence, a lot of the intelligence work is focused on gathering, consolidating, and assessing discrete pieces of information to build up a knowledge landscape the analyst can use to find the intelligence insights needed by decision-makers.
It is estimated that between 80 and 90% of all data, information, and knowledge that goes into an intelligence report comes from open sources.
Today, political and violent risks can emerge from any agents. In the days of modern politics, only the actions and decisions of a limited number of people could drive the risk up or down. Today, the technological revolution has empowered anybody to make history with a big H.
The Arab Spring protest movement erupted when one individual filmed Mohamed Bouazizi immolate himself. The video triggered mass unrest across the Middle East that ultimately led to the toppling of governments and long-time leaders as well as the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. The same goes for the current unrest in the US that followed the video of the killing of George Floyd.
For this reason, intelligence must monitor a much larger array of actors.
Because intelligence agencies have only so much cover intelligence capabilities and bandwidth, they need to prioritize their effort. In this respect, OSINT has become critical in helping define which targets to focus on with cover means.
In conclusion, the technological revolution coupled with the complexification of world politics has transformed OSINT from a supporting function to a central tenet of modern intelligence.
As Major-General Cammaert puts it:
the challenges of contemporary intelligence ‘are that instead of stealing a few secrets, [it] must make sense of vast, overwhelming quantities of non-secret information’. 1
But in doing so it is presenting OSINT with new challenges, both in terms of methods and technologies.
1) Cammaert in Carment, David and Rudner, Martin (eds.), Peacekeeping Intelligence, New Players, Extended Boundaries, Routledge, London, (2006) p. xxi.