“Today we face a critical juncture for American spy agencies, as big as 9/11 — only most people don’t know it,” says Amy B. Zegart, Stanford University professor and author of the recently released Spies, Lies and Algorithms. “New dangers come from tech, not terrorists. Emerging technologies like AI and social media are weakening the strong and empowering the weak, fundamentally changing dynamics of international conflict. To be blunt: The U.S. is losing its intelligence advantage.”
The role of open source intelligence (OSINT) in intelligence operations has been a part of ongoing debates for the past decade. The Intelligence and National Security Alliance and Avantus Federal are looking to shift the conversation forward in a new webinar series addressing the evolving role of OSINT in government.
“We’re not going to start by relitigating definitions of what open source is and isn’t, or talk about the overwhelming variety, volume, and velocity of the data,” emphasized Matt Scott, Senior Vice President and Mission Technology Strategist, Avantus Federal, and the program’s moderator. “We’re not going to scapegoat cultures for not adopting OSINT, we’re not going to try to convince the old guard that OSINT somehow compliments their legacy ‘INTs’ and is somehow not a threat to them. These were all interesting conversations over the past 10-15 years.”
But now is the time to move the conversation forward, said Scott. And global phenomenon – from the war in Ukraine to the seismic growth of big data and the metaverse only emphasize how OSINT isn’t just evolving how the intelligence community collects intelligence, it’s revolutionizing it.
“As individuals we have more access to insights and information and support,” said the Hon. Ellen McCarthy, president of the Truth in Media Foundation and former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “We are richer than we’ve ever been. And that’s wonderful. But it’s also scary at the same time, because it’s a petri dish for adversaries trying to mess with us.”
McCarthy emphasized how 90 percent of the world’s data was generated in the past two years. That sheer volume of data – and where most of it lives – has shifted the power dynamic away from the government holding the competitive advantage. Today private sector companies often have access to the same datasets – and better resources to analyze it.
“Roughly 80 percent of all information in today’s agency reports are available in publicly available means,” said McCarthy. She said the days of the IC being primarily focused on protecting secrets has shifted – today it’s about protecting insights. “The role of open source changes the government into being an insight provider,” she said.
The war in Ukraine is a direct example of this – with the U.S. government focused on helping to declassify and share information about the war with the world. Today, sometimes the strategic advantage comes in what is declassified and shared.
That’s not just the view from someone who has already left government – that’s the mindset from within.
“Open source to me has proven itself over and over and over,” said Patrice Tibbs, chief of community open source at the CIA. “When you look at the landscape and the demand and how it’s increasing, and how we’re communicating, that really is the lion’s share of where information is coming from.”
And if it’s a lion, the message is it’s time to tame the beast – not lock it in a cage.
“It is becoming what most of us now call the ‘INT’ of first resort – it’s that opportunity we’re finding across every level,” said Tibbs. Today in the IC incidents are both validated and come to the attention of the IC through OSINT.
Storms highlighted the recent book authored by Amy Zegart, Spies, Lies and Algorithms, and a quote from Zegart emphasizing how emerging technologies are ‘weakening the strong and empowering the weak’ – and contributing to the U.S. losing its intelligence advantage.
McCarthy noted that the metaverse is going to add a whole new layer of data and open up questions the government hasn’t even begun to adequately address. In contrast, the private sector is already looking at tools and ways to capitalize on the metaverse, positioning itself to be ahead of government in another emerging technological arena.
“Everybody is saying open source should be the cornerstone of what we’re doing. But it still feels like something we’re doing on the side…it’s a side show,” said McCarthy.
The importance of OSINT is something key players across government, congress and industry agree on – but it’s a matter of moving the money, the training, and applying it equally across all 18 IC members. Tibbs, a Navy vet, used the ‘turning a carrier’ analogy to describe the IC’s adoption of OSINT. “I’m starting to see some momentum at the senior levels, looking at it from the holistic perspective,” she said.
What will it take to move the IC in the direction of OSINT? For McCarthy, it’s about reframing the questions being asked by everyone from analysts to acquisition professionals.
“I think the world of open source changes the intelligence community into being a content provider. I think our number one function is delivering insights,” said McCarthy.” She said today the IC has a strategic opportunity to move toward being a content provider and author of trusted insights. She noted the way the U.S. is releasing information about the war in Ukraine is just one example of how it can be done in an era when “no one trusts anything.”
“I think that’s how you’re going to start driving people to think of new ways and to move forward faster, I think that’s the opportunity of open source,” said McCarthy.
“I think there’s opportunity to build momentum and protect the future,” she said.
You can view the program or register for future videocasts with Avantus Federal and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance here.