Published on March 4, 2023 in The National Interest.
When most people hear the word intelligence in a political context, they immediately think of clandestine sources, spies, and secret meetings. Intelligence services still rely on human source intelligence (HUMINT) and intercepted communications (SIGINT). However, in the twenty-first century, open-source intelligence (OSINT) has become indispensable for understanding your adversaries and is often the primary and most valuable source of actionable intelligence. According to a detailed article highlighting the power of OSINT in the Wall Street Journal, “80% of what a U.S. president or military commander needs to know comes from OSINT.”
What then is OSINT, and why is it so important in 2023?
In brief, OSINT is the painstaking gathering and analysis of information from a wide range of open sources for the military, intelligence, police, and business communities. The explosion of social media—from real-time videos to blogs to chat rooms to Twitter and Facebook—has produced unprecedented opportunities for insight into areas and people where HUMINT and SIGINT are not as effective or cost too much while decreasing the risk to human intelligence assets. In addition, the analysis of covert intelligence is informed and sometimes significantly changed by OSINT.
As such, combining OSINT, HUMINT, VISINT (visual intelligence), and SIGINT allows a country’s national and diplomatic security apparatus to pre-emptively act to thwart threats, inform allies, negotiate from the point of strength, and challenge international organizations and non-government organizations with accurate information, especially those with hostile intent.
OSINT’s importance is increasingly recognized, especially in U.S. intelligence circles. The aforementioned Wall Street Journal article quotes Robert Cardillo, a senior intelligence expert, commenting that he “doesn’t worry about the intelligence community going away. I worry about it mattering. Government policymakers could rely less on traditional intelligence briefings and more on open-source products, which are generally cheaper and easier to access.” Almost in response to this challenge, former high-ranking U.S. intelligence experts—including a director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a retired Army major general who commanded the Army Intelligence Center, and the former deputy director of national intelligence for analysis—have formed the OSINT Foundation, which is “focused on OSINT’s use within the intelligence community to answer questions for national leadership and policymakers because of a recognition that U.S. intelligence doesn’t give it the prominence it deserves.”
The significance of OSINT is not lost on U.S. adversaries either. Consider China: according to William Hannas of Georgetown University, Beijing has an “estimated 100,000 analysts scouring scientific and technical development globally” through open sources. Even in closed societies, the exponential growth of social media has given opposition forces the tools to share information with the outside world. It was the Iranian opposition that first revealed Iran’s advanced nuclear program, after all.
But it is perhaps in the private sphere that OSINT’s effects are being felt most; private intelligence companies may surpass government intelligence agencies in the gathering of actionable intelligence. An intelligence unit of Dow Chemical, using only open-source intelligence, predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 23, 2022: “Supercharged by the Ukraine war, the rise of open-source intelligence, which comprises everything from commercial satellite imagery to social media posts and purchasable databases, poses revolutionary challenges for the Central Intelligence Agency and its sister spy agencies, according to former senior officials who spent decades working in those agencies’ classified spaces.”
Consider as an example of this trend the Israeli research and educational think tank Alma—which one of the authors of this article is the CEO of. The organization studies Syria, Iraq, and Iran while relying almost entirely on OSINT. Its reporting and analysis are used by major media organizations, politicians, and security agencies for reliable information on the threats posed by Hezbollah in Lebanon and other Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq. Alma’s special reports and analysis have unearthed information on a vast array of issues, including the propagation of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Europe to south Florida, Hezbollah’s drug industry in Syria, Iran’s entrenchment in south Damascus, Hamas’ growing presence in Lebanon, the Iranian smuggling of weapons into Beirut and Damascus airports, Russia’s military deployment in Syria, Iranian and Hezbollah espionage and terrorist activity in Scandinavia, details on the Iranian weapons land corridor, analysis of Syria’s air defenses, and documentation on the deployment of advanced Iranian UAVs throughout the Middle East. Hezbollah was so concerned about the accuracy of Alma’s reporting that they threatened the organization by posting its GPS coordinates as a warning.
Yet OSINT is not without some drawbacks, which must be kept in mind.
For one, given the enormous volume of open-source intelligence, professional analysts must somehow separate the wheat from the chaff. Analyzing press briefings, websites, government-supported journals, private commercial imagery from satellites, technical reports, corporate and government databases, first-hand observation, and more, the list of OSINT sources is endless. Information overload is a potential problem that must be navigated. In the past, people tended to believe secret sources produced the most valuable intelligence. Today it is becoming increasingly clear that professional and creative OSINT analysts can draw an excellent picture of reality—but only so long as analysts can condense an enormous amount of information into a presentable and accessible intelligence product.
Next is the problem posed by disinformation. Intelligence communities that rely on the complete range of intelligence sources have long had to stand guard against such, and there is a belief that OSINT can be more challenging for intelligence analysts as there may be a greater risk of such. At the same time though, it is also clear today that every form of intelligence, whether open or secret source, is maybe “infected” by disinformation. Appropriate judgment and careful evaluation are now more important than before.
Finally, leaked classified information that makes its way into open sources presents a double-edged sword: while such information can be helpful to policymakers who were cut out of the classified loop by their security agencies, the problem is that now one’s enemies also know.
No one knows the future of intelligence, but valuing the importance of OSINT, in combination with HUMINT and SIGINT, will give us a fighting chance to inform our leaders with the best information to protect our interests and societies from those who want to do us harm.