Is OSINT Hype?
Washington, DC Oct. 6th, 2006 ---- The hype surrounding Open Source Intelligence has been a major obstruction to developing a more efficient system of intelligence gathering and analysis, especially for the US Government. In reality OSINT has been around for hundreds of years, and for those who really are part of the global search for information know, it is widely used, but probably under different names.
The one common factor with intelligence gathering is that governments and the military do not like to talk about their operational methods, or how they obtain their information, in public forums. They do not like books written about themselves by authors claiming to have had special access, such as being employed by them, nor do they like their activities being the subject of private money making conferences. The intelligence agencies believe they are constantly evolving to incorporate any new sources.
The question then becomes, "Is there any need for OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) as a separate discipline or is it just a subset of existing collection methods?"
In 2005 I decided to look at the creation of an OSINT Center in Washington, DC and in Europe, to focus the collection and distribution of OSINT. This was a positive development project to evaluate the requirements and explore the technology and potential of a civilian OSINT operation. For years conference speakers had been extolling the virtues and need for such an operation.
We have extensive software and systems to support our media operation, so we are not newcomers to the field, and everyone connected with the project have been fully trained in intelligence gathering and analysis. Yet we soon observed that to achieve a fraction of the OSINT dream being discussed on the Internet would require the investment of tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars of computer equipment, skilled analysts and support personnel. Only the multi-billion dollar defense contractors, backed by Federal contracts could possibly take on such a task. There were case studies, and we were very fortunate to be allowed to see these niche operations, which still required investments over $20 million to create. These operations focused on a segment of the information pie, usually travel, security, terrorism or a well defined subject area.
Then the obvious business metric comes into play. If you are seeking to analyze all sources, in all languages, from all countries, is that feasible, and will it have any commercial value. Consider a manufacturer of cellular phones wanting to target the Chinese Market . He wants focused data on the market in question, and really doesn't care about paying for data on the pollen level in Paraguay. The requirement is for accurate timely intelligence on specific topics, and specific geographical areas. The "Desk" system in newsrooms, and government.
Even terrorist tracking comes down to known groups, known areas and known target areas. Does a rabid right wing plot to firebomb an Abortion Clinic in Cincinnati warrant a total targeting of all right leaning political activists, sympathizers and sources of revenue in the United States, by every law enforcement agency in the world? That is the result of trying to develop an OSINT capability that collects anything on everything.
By definition a civilian intelligence operation must use ethical, legal and public sources for gathering information. This can include data from private interviews, and off the record background briefings, as used by journalists. Should a government pass on information gained by other means there immediately becomes a legal issue far beyond discussion here. Consider the implications of an employee of a US Defense Contractor being involved in torture, or handling information gained by torture, and possibly murder of detainees. Whilst a soldier can claim some immunity can that civilian be arrested for conspiracy to murder years later, and can the owners of that civilian database storing that information be the subject of prosecution.
The current policy of governments is to pull all sources, open, classified and clandestine together into their central analysis and distribution network. They seem to have no reason to seek a new layer of intelligence gathering, without focus or coordination and farmed out to civilian contractors. If contractors want to participate they must follow existing protocols and become part of the existing infrastructure, guided and managed by the trained government intelligence officers.
This precludes any of the high-profile small business advocates swamping the internet with claims and commentary on what OSINT should be, provide and how the results should be used. Such pronouncements are counter to the intelligence cultures around the world.
There have been outlandish statements made about creating a World wide network of millions of spies feeding the US Military machine, all for profit. Fortunately this has been greeted with deserved skepticism and the realization that this is illegal espionage. Any fool collecting information and calling it in to a foreign military contractor, with a supplied cellphone deserves to do jail time.
This leaves the civilian sector as the customer for Open Source Intelligence from private corporate suppliers. But they are already well supplied by professional information brokers both recognized and experienced in their particular specialization. An example of this is iJet in Annapolis, where analysts from around the world track travel threats in a multi-million dollar intelligence center.
The media have long operated newsrooms which draw information from public sources worldwide, ourselves included. We have seriously examined the options of what an extended reach of OSINT could provide and beyond a certain, well defined point there exists the "Laws of Diminishing Returns" where an additional hundred million dollars worth of capability results in cents worth of return. That is totally unacceptable both to governments, media and private industry.
The world of information is changing rapidly and the media are leading this charge into new exciting technologies. Who would have imagined the nightly TV News would be available on a cellphone, or that you could watch Moscow TV News real time on a computer. Terrorist groups have embraced media technology and techniques and issue News Releases and Video News Releases as a key component of their campaigns. The importance of electronic media has never been so important.
This results in a need for CMI or Counter Media Intelligence to counter the messages of terrorists, and those seeking to attack our principles and way of life. The requirement isn't to find out this information, for it is blasted loudly around the world, it is to stop it being used to recruit followers, by offering an alternative solution or media message. Cutting the flow off at the source is far better and more cost effective than developing massive unwieldy information retrieval and analysis networks to find out what they already have told you.
Instead of seeking to create OSINT as a separate, potentially a long term replacement to traditional intelligence gathering and analysis governments should be looking at developing, or improving their media machine. For if the analysts think Blue, and the population thinks Red all the OSINT has been in vain. Time to think ahead and focus on the real information power.