Open source intelligence (OSINT) is hardly a new term. In the past several years the relevance has certainly gained steam across the Intelligence Community (IC). But even as OSINT has become incorporated, it still lacks status as an institution within the IC. But a growing number of government leaders and industry partners are hoping to change that. In a panel discussion moderated by Beth Sanner, Senior Fellow Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University at the Intelligence & National Security Summit hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) and AFCEA, panelists from industry and the private sector discussed why it’s time to take our investment in OSINT to the next level.
“It’s data that provides the content and delivers the key content,” said Brad Ahlskog, Chief, Open Source Intelligence Integration Center Defense Intelligence Agency.” And most of the world’s data isn’t in the IC – it’s in the world.”
“The goal today is to balance the fusion of commercial, open source, and IC data together,” Ahlskog emphasized. “That’s why we’re investing in open source and trying to get organized,” he added.
The Honorable Ellen McCarthy, Chairwoman and CEO Truth in Media Cooperative, gave credit for steps some of the three letter agencies are doing to coordinate and work together – but emphasized there is much more that needs to be done, “I would really like to see the DNI move out in bringing in the other IC elements,” she says. Smaller intel elements are making big muscle movements happen around OSINT, and moving forward, she hopes those efforts get more focus and integration.
“In the IC, our job is about delivering content to someone,” said McCarthy. “You’re measured based on doing that and doing that well.”
McCarthy emphasized that open source work has been done within the IC for the past 75 years, and the time is now to coordinate the standards, best practices, and data. Decision-advantage is the cornerstone of successful intelligence. If OSINT is producing insights that offer decision advantage, it’s time to stop criticizing it as a source or focusing on only tools and solutions that come on the super classified sources purchased at great cost, she noted.
OSINT is a focus of the Director of National Intelligence, as evidenced in recent congressional testimony. The DNI is looking to integrate OSINT and “professionalize all of the OSINT officers regardless of where they sit in IC” said Ahlskog. He said the IC knows the value of having “professional open source officers who understand the sources.”
Create standards and tradecraft. It’s in the initial phases. Evolution of technology. Rely on a lot of help outside the intelligence community. Value of having professional open source officers who understand the sources. Deep target knowledge and understand the context of how this information is being presented.
While the DNI is emphasizing OSINT integration, McCarthy pushed that it’s time to take OSINT a step further, referring to the “monkey in the room” – the possibility of creating a separate intelligence agency dedicated to OSINT.
“I think we do, and I think we’ll get there,” said McCarthy. She shared the vision of an outside agency or entity dedicated to OSINT, where analysts and data scientists can go in and out, to professionalize, connect, and grow the IC’s focus on OSINT.
The sentiment toward professionalism and prominence was echoed by Janet Rathod, Global Head of Cyber Threat Intelligence, Citi, who shared how the private sector is applying OSINT in “100 use cases” from safety and security to brand protection. OSINT extends beyond what is available through an open search of the internet, and includes an entire subset of proprietary data, from financial to satellite data.
Despite all of those applications – and the vast force multiplier of technology, OSINT, like all ‘INTs’ is enabled by analysis.
“The future of open source is wholly dependent on the future of our analysts,” said Rahod. “How we as analysts handle that information, assess it, and our ability to think about our thinking” – that’s the key to OSINT advantage.
OSINT and Misinformation
One of the obvious criticisms behind OSINT is the capacity for misinformation and disinformation. With the right combination of data insight and the critical element of analysis, the IC has a process for reducing the disinformation risk. One of the key intelligence challenges today is how that doesn’t apply to how data is affecting decision-making everywhere else.
“Our job in the IC is to provide decision advantage – but who’s doing that for everyone else?” said McCarthy. The emphasized that it’s a multi-sector problem that will require the efforts of academia, research, education, the private sector, and overall public awareness around information sources and what disinformation looks like.
“Part of our secret sauce is our openness and transparency, and ability to form your own opinion, but it’s getting taken advantage of,” said McCarthy, who suggested treating information like a critical infrastructure. “You need the platforms, media companies, education – everyone to work together on this. Government is struggling to do anything.
That struggle may be the key reason to create an OSINT entity to focus on the problem and integrate solutions – across both the 18 intelligence agencies and the private sector community. As the U.S. braces for another polarizing election cycle that America’s adversaries are no doubt ready to capitalize on, the DNI’s push to professionalize OSINT and industry’s call to institutionalize it may create the demand vector to turn OSINT from a periphery function of the IC – to a core one.