We’re finally elevating open source intelligence

By Christine Duhaime | October 21st, 2021

The United States military and intelligence community (IC) are both moving towards the elevation of open source intelligence (OSINT) as a mature intelligence discipline equal to traditional intelligence.

The US House of Representatives last month in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, H.R. 4350 (here), directed that the Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence set out a plan to elevate OSINT and treat it on par with information collected from classified means (e.g., human intelligence, signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence).

The so-called non-OSINT derived intelligence is the domain of, among others, the CIA, NSA, NGA in the US and it means that within those agencies, OSINT would be treated equal to information from spies, and other intelligence gathering methods.

The shift recognizes the relevance, reliability (of some), and more timely delivery of OSINT as compared to traditional sources. OSINT has been used and recognized as valuable (e.g., WWII for example, where it was vital) for intelligence gathering but the nexus of the Internet, Big Data and social media has de facto elevated its importance but OSINT has remained a discipline that was also overlooked and underestimated, and considered useful for mere background information (e.g., as “information” as opposed to “intelligence”) that was unclassified.

The use of OSINT by intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies carries different risks such as source bias and deception; intellectual property infringement; deconfliction concerns; operational security; and technology risks but it also means that the IC can staff intelligence positions for OSINT with little to no clearance requirements and save time and enormous clearance costs building OSINT capabilities for national security.

The Covid-19 pandemic was the catalyst (as well as Bitcoin bad actors and risks) that has prompted some of the shift to pay more heed to OSINT.

That’s because the goal of intelligence agencies is to defend the lives of Americans (and of Canadians in the case of Canada), and so we should have been alive to the threats of Covid-19. As a whole, we failed to sufficiently look at threats of pandemics and supply chains.

The emergence of Covid-19 and its potential threat appeared first on social media from China in early January 2020 and it was not treated with the importance it should have been because it was not classified intel. When Covid-19 news and stories hit Chinese social media, people connected to China in Canada learned of it first and were much more aware from watching what was going on in Wuhan on social media, compared to the general population or it seems, the federal government as a whole.

This gap (not treating OSINT as important as traditional intelligence) arose because of the idea in the IC that classified information is more valuable – Covid-19 shows us that it is not necessarily the case. The intelligence world is changing and OSINT is expected to become as important as classified information in the years to come in the decision-making process.

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