This article originally appeared in RealClearDefense – by Evan Smith, Tradecraft Advisor at Fivecast.
Throughout America’s involvement in modern warfare, intelligence analysts have been tasked with curating accurate information into actionable intelligence for use in various theaters of war. While analysts often leverage five key sources of military intelligence — human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT), measurement and signatures intelligence (MASINT), the value of open-source intelligence (OSINT) is often overlooked amidst a culture that generally prefers classified sources.
When OSINT first formally emerged during WWII, it was derived from media such as magazines, newspapers, TV and radio broadcasts, and photographs. Recent unfettered access to technology across global populations has led to critical intelligence being generated in novel spaces and means. OSINT now includes publicly available information from a multitude of online social media sites and web platforms and its utility to the warfighter has expanded accordingly. Commanders can uniquely leverage open-source intelligence to further situational awareness, conduct battle damage assessment, tip and cue collection from other sources, gauge population sentiment, provide targeted insights on violent extremist organizations communications, and more.
Filling Intelligence Gaps
Every commander faces intelligence gaps. Whether it’s technical limitations or resource allocation, they routinely encounter challenges that keep them from understanding the operating environment to some degree. Historically, decision makers have relied on classified information to answer priority intelligence requirements, but the increasing complexity and multipolarity of the battlespace requires accessing and analyzing as much data as possible to better understand the operating picture. The fusion of all five intelligence disciplines ensures accurate and comprehensive data that furthers the commander’s situational awareness.
The utility of OSINT can be seen within the level of detail that publicly available information provides. Images, videos, or posts on social media often give the analyst a unique perspective that can help uncover previously unknown threats. For example, poor operational security on behalf of adversarial military personnel can reveal insights into military operations. When Russia first intervened in the Syrian Civil War, sailors aboard the logistics vessels employed by the Russian Federation Navy posted pictures onboard the ships and even posed with different weaponry being delivered. While using this type of data to make high value decisions may seem counterintuitive due to its unclassified means of collection, it can prove useful and deliver a strategic edge for the military.
Another area where public information has proven beneficial is in identifying and reporting asymmetric forces and violent extremism organizations’ communications and radicalization efforts online. Social media has opened a plethora of ways for extremists of all types to interact and plan, and this information is not accessible in many other spaces or from other sources.
In addition, from a management perspective, leveraging OSINT as an initial source in a collection plan can ensure effective and efficient use of resources. OSINT has a lower barrier to entry compared to other intelligence sources and can inform the collection efforts through SIGINT, HUMINT, IMINT, and MASINT. Incorporating OSINT into a comprehensive plan can ensure sound and informed decision-making for the agency. This enables OSINT to provide a level of insight to operations previously unavailable to the relevant agencies.
Challenges and Ensuring Source Validation
Prior to OSINTs adaption within the Intelligence Community, there are challenges that must be addressed before the value of publicly available information can be fully realized and its ability to fill the gaps in intelligence can be achieved.
First, it is paramount that national security interests and the safety of intelligence analysts is upheld when data is being collected from open sources. Digital intelligence in particular presents unique attribution challenges that must be addressed before the data is exploited. The usefulness of the vast amount of information is limited without a comprehensive understanding of what’s there and how to safely access, filter and analyze it.
Second, the overwhelming amount of publicly available information, the variety of data structures and sources, and the velocity at which it appears and disappears from the digital arena necessitates a culture change on the part of defense intelligence analysts. For analysts to recognize the value of OSINT, they must first receive the proper training and tools needed to review massive amounts of data. Fortunately, the analytical skills necessary can largely be transferred from existing training and understanding of other forms of intelligence. In addition, military intelligence organizations need to embrace artificial intelligence and other forms of data analytics, both of which are cost-effective means to enhance an analyst’s ability to conduct data exploitation and analytic techniques. None of the technologies, such as optical character recognition, automated translation, and “big data” analytics, add significant cost, but they greatly increase the value and utility of the publicly available data.
Third, information and data transmitted through social media and web platforms can include misleading, conflicting, and even purposefully designed disinformation. It’s essential for analysts to use a holistic approach when conducting OSINT. They should layer it with other sources of intelligence including IMINT, HUMINT, SIGINT, and MASINT to validate and rate confidence in the information and derived assessments. Additionally, it’s important that analysts proactively collect and identify purposefully designed disinformation as it contains critical insights on alternative narratives, what other operatives are attempting to conceal or manipulate, and how that will affect the operational space.
Lastly, the U.S.’ involvement in conflicts and geopolitical tensions around the world has added to the workload of intelligence teams. The Great Power Competition, Ukraine, countering Iranian influence in the Middle East, and counter-terrorism operations in Africa are a few examples of such conflicts. The ever-increasing areas of interest have forced analysts to generate more intelligence assessments with relatively strained resources. To mitigate this shortfall, publicly available information and AI/ML enabled collection and assessment solutions can help fill the gaps and be used in conjunction with other means of collection while requiring minimal additional resources.
Overall, the nexus between publicly available information and the aforementioned technologies helps analysts better understand the battlespace and identify essential information regarding adversarial capabilities. Online activities and dialogue often demonstrate intent of enemies and allow decision-makers to allocate resources where they’re most beneficial.
Unlike other forms of intelligence which often provide time-late data, OSINT can provide persistent near-real-time intelligence and help corroborate other assessments derived from classified means. This method of collection can help streamline military action by providing the commander with a comprehensive understanding of adversarial force disposition and operations. The rapid decision-making required on the battlefield is aided by the near-immediate availability of information to identify threats and collection opportunities.
Information from the public – whether from someone with a microblog feed or from a warfighter directly – should never be discounted. While classified information has long been the backbone of intelligence in modern warfare, the availability of critical information online marks a new era for intelligence collection and presents an opportunity for decision-makers to better understand the operating environment. The expertise needed to understand threat patterns in various regions of the world is only truly possible when all five forms of intelligence – including publicly available information – are combined to deliver a comprehensive perspective. Leveraging modern technology and a rigorous analyst training pipeline to address the large volume of available information will provide insights previously left unreported. As the U.S. continues to monitor conflicts worldwide, the need for OSINT and the value it offers will grow exponentially in the years ahead.
About the Author
Evan Smith is a Tradecraft Advisor at Fivecast. Prior to joining Fivecast, he spent six years as a defense intelligence analyst working for NATO’s Maritime Command and the Department of Defense’s Central Command (CENTCOM). Evan holds a B.A. degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Maryland Global Campus and has various certifications in Geospatial Intelligence analysis.