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In this blog, Sam Pearce, Tradecraft Lead for Fivecast in the UK and Europe, explores trends and recent insights into the intelligence challenges faced across the region and outlines the way forward by placing strategic importance on OSINT best practices.  

THE PARADIGM SHIFT IN OPEN-SOURCE INFORMATION

Across the Western intelligence community, agencies are faced with a new paradigm in which the privileged insights they provide to decision-makers are no longer solely drawn from expensive and sensitive collection methods, but from their ability to efficiently derive meaning from huge volumes of open-source information.

Amy Zegart’s recent article in Foreign Policy magazine (Open Secrets: Ukraine and the next intelligence revolution) made some searing observations about US government agencies’ failure to keep pace with the change; concluding that – to succeed – the US intelligence community must rapidly adapt to a more open, technological world.

Closer to home, the UK MoD’s Commander Strategic Command, General Hockenhull, also recently made some public statements about the challenges and shortfalls within the UK government open source intelligence (OSINT) community.

In the industry brief below, we examine the evolving terrorism risk landscape across the UK and Europe and showcase key open-source intelligence (OSINT) capabilities for addressing threats.

Download the Industry Brief

 

Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on the importance of OSINT back in November 2022, he identified several key challenges for his agency in embracing OSINT technology.

In this blog, I’m focusing on four of the common challenges expressed by Zegart and Hockenhull; challenges we believe are likely shared by agencies throughout the Western intelligence community. They include:

AI disrupting every industry, including OSINT

The need to embrace greater automation and AI to deal with the ever-increasing volume of available information.

As General Hockenhull acknowledged, the volume, velocity, and complexity of data available to underpin analytical judgements is now beyond the scale of human comprehension. But, the trained human analyst will never, and should never, be replaced by Artificial Intelligence. There is, however, battle-ready technology available right now to augment not just the collection of information from open sources like the growing array of social media platforms, but importantly also the analysis of this data. Embracing the capabilities of machine learning in this context – to enable the human analyst to derive meaning quickly from masses of online data – is now a necessity, not just a luxury.

Intelligence work is no longer the domain of solely government spy agencies

The need to invert the traditional reliance on secret intelligence – which sees open source information merely as adding flavour.

I agree here the challenge is significant. It is a challenge to both intelligence methodology and culture. The insights we gain from our SIGINT and HUMINT sources – particularly in this digital age of information overload – can increasingly be characterised as observing the battlefield through a drinking straw. These secret intelligence capabilities must of course continue to be nurtured and enhanced, but their contribution to the broader intelligence picture must increasingly be the final, unique part of the analytical judgement; not the starting point or fundamental building block. For intelligence officers who have dedicated their careers to highly specialised, covert intelligence collection, or to make assessments based on such material, that paradigm shift is not inconsequential.

Defence and intelligence agencies struggling to adopt critical new technologies from the outside

An urgent need for governments to embrace ‘dynamic engagement’ with industry.

For reasons of security and secrecy, the historic tendency within defence and security agencies has – as General Hockenhull noted – typically been to build and maintain in-house capabilities for covert collection requirements. But as the pace of technological change races on, and modern ways of working mean talented young minds are less inclined to spend their days inside secure, windowless bunkers – recruitment of cleared staff with sufficient technical expertise becomes more challenging. Instead, utilisation of ‘COTS’ services that are built and maintained by trusted third parties offers defence and security agencies the agility to adopt new technology quickly and with minimal overheads, and the ability to pivot quickly when required.

Exploitation of OSINT as a hallmark of the Russia-Ukraine war to date

Our technology is already being deployed in theatres of conflict around the globe. With respect to the Russia-Ukraine war, it shouldn’t be any surprise that such a wealth of material for supporting analytical judgements would be generated in what General Hockenhull referred to as potentially the world’s first ‘digital war’.

Fivecast’s ability to provide our customers with secure, automated monitoring at scale has been able to generate insights from actors across the spectrum. From young Russian soldiers posting selfies at the front line, to Russian generals and politicians providing updates about battlefield ‘successes’. From Russian Private Military Contractors posting details of their atrocities to Russian ‘news’ outlets pushing out propaganda and other pro-Kremlin messaging.

You can read our latest Ukraine Case Study here

 

Leveraging the intelligence community to build capabilities

In her article, Zegart wrote that the intelligence community needed to embrace wholesale changes in order to understand and harness emerging technologies. In his address, General Hockenhull noted that the need for change was urgent, and requested the support of the OSINT community to rapidly help build the capability within his agency.

That kind of transformational change is not easy, and care should be taken not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In my view, the biggest challenge for us all right now – government and private industry alike – is finding a way to fuse commercially available capabilities with the analytical skill, methodology and additional insights that typically remain the preserve of government agencies.

While government agencies may indeed suffer from challenges outlined above, they for the most part remain the domain of something which should not be undervalued – rigorous analytical training, discipline and tradecraft. In the liberal democracies, we all seek to preserve, it appropriate that these agencies – which provide the analytical judgments to underpin the decision-making of our elected representatives – retain that role. While capability for undertaking OSINT can and should come from industry, analytical judgements and intelligence-informed decision-making shouldn’t.

At Fivecast, we supply a world-leading OSINT collection and analysis platform, ready to be used by the agencies with the remit to collect such information, and to assist the analysts attempting to make sense of that information. It is technology that seeks to augment the role of the trained analyst; not supplant it.

If you would like to learn more about Fivecast, contact our Tradecraft Team to request a customized demo.