In this blog, our experienced Tradecraft team explores how deploying OSINT for Global Situational Awareness can support government and corporations operating overseas.
Government, military, corporations and not-for profits operating overseas require global situational awareness to manage and address threats to operations, troops, employees, facilities, and supply chains. Open-source data can surface threats, whether direct or indirect, to help gain a full picture of the overseas threat landscape. Deploying OSINT for global situational awareness can help uncover threats not easily detected with traditional intelligence capabilities.
The Importance of Global Situational Awareness
Nothing illustrates the fragility of State like the events that have been occurring in Myanmar. In 2020, having recently experienced a successful transition towards democracy, things were really looking up for the Southeast Asian state. With a democratically elected government and a landmark constitutional change, a sense of hope was returning to the troubled state. Myanmar was participating in major regional military exercises, had a seat at the ASEAN table and after a 20-year absence of a US ambassador, Yangon finally saw a promising sign, with new chargé d’affaires appointed to head the US diplomatic mission.
Fast forward to February 2021, and the streets of Yangon were flooded with thousands of protesters opposing the coup d’état, staged by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces. As the unrest unfolded and chaos broke out in the streets, little was known about what would happen next. Over the following two months, the Junta would comb the streets responding to anti-government protests with brutality. By April, the death toll was reportedly reaching over 700, including 44 children (AAAP 2021; BBC 2021). To this day the Junta still holds power, with civil unrest and insecurity still a constant.
Protecting Overseas Missions
The dangers posed by the violent civil unrest is certainly not exclusive to those actively protesting. Those stationed in embassies or consulates are equally susceptible to the violence – in the case of Myanmar, the US embassy was shot at (Reuters 2021) – but business must go on for diplomatic outposts. As part of business continuity, what were once simple activities must now be risk assessed to a much higher standard. Consideration must also be given to those not fortunate enough to live inside secure embassy compounds. Many contractors live amongst the local populous and must still travel to and from the diplomatic building; plus their mere employment or association with a foreign government can make them a target of violence. It becomes abundantly clear that timely and accurate information is not only necessary but vital in these situations.
How do overseas missions obtain situational awareness when chaos reigns in order to make informed risk assessments and protect their people?
The role of open-source data in monitoring civil unrest
Like many contemporary examples of civil unrest, particularly mass uprisings opposing government action, the protesters in Myanmar were heavily reliant on social media to not only coordinate action and inform each other of government response, but also as a defensive mechanism – by raising awareness of the Junta’s brutality to media outlets overseas. This resulted in frequent social media posts from a range of sources on the ground, which were feeding invaluable information to quite literally anyone that would listen. Announcements about roadblocks, proposed protest locations, Junta street actions and shootings were just a fraction of what was being circulated – all in real time and with granular detail. Posts were often accompanied by photographs or video and provided geolocation information to ensure nothing was lost in translation.
Capitalizing on open-source intelligence
The US alone has over 190 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions spread across the globe, and whilst physical security may be managed locally, the strategic analysis of the overall security picture may be done Stateside. In the case of critical incident response, decision makers are often physically removed from an event, relying on reporting from existing channels to ultimately decide what those stuck ‘in country’ will do. OSINT provides an opportunity to gain timely information, direct from the ground, which can be used to make assessments of the situation as they unfold from a remote position without the need to have direct contact with assets in country. This is not to play down the importance of existing intelligence channels, often highly classified, accurate and invaluable. The role of OSINT is to complement these capabilities; to plug holes or bolster where traditional information feeds are lacking or non-existent. As well, not all stakeholders are privy to classified information. Non-government organizations are frequently placed in dangerous positions, tasked with providing vital services in foreign countries with less-than-ideal security arrangements and need situational awareness to protect their people.
Automating the OSINT feed
Truth be told, it is possible to collect a large amount of open-source information manually. But, at what cost? Information still needs to be processed and analyzed before it can be called intelligence, and the volumes of open-source data in a crisis are enormous. A small team of analysts collecting open-source data soon turns into an entire room full, just trying to piece together the captured piles of disparate data from potentially thousands of sources.
Fivecast ONYX is a robust OSINT collection and analysis platform that enables analysts and intelligence teams to perform ongoing, consistent, and secure collection of data from a broad range of sources. Automated and ongoing data collection enables effective monitoring of threats to operations and employees hidden across the surface, deep and dark web which aren’t easily detectable with traditional intelligence capabilities or simple online searches.
Intelligence teams are then able to filter, and risk assess the data with a customizable AI-enabled risk detection framework that uncovers the information most relevant to an investigation from masses of online data. Advanced data collection combined with the intuitive and user-trainable AI-enabled risk analytics of Fivecast ONYX provides a broad picture of overseas threats to operations, employees, and facilities. This valuable global situational awareness helps government and corporations manage and address direct and indirect threats to overseas operations.
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners 2021, in ‘Myanmar protesters throw red paint on streets as death toll mounts’, Bangkok Post, 14 April 2021, https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/2099723/myanmar-protesters-throw-red-paint-on-streets-as-death-toll-mounts.
BBC 2021, ‘Myanmar coup: More than 40 children killed by military, rights group says’, BBC, 1 April, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56600292
Reuters 2021, ‘Shots fired at US cultural centre in Myanmar – embassy’, Reuters, 27 March 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/shots-fired-us-cultural-centre-myanmar-embassy-2021-03-27/.