By David E. Hubler
There was a time within the Intelligence Community (IC) when the term “open source” referred primarily to materials and media that could be freely accessed – newspapers, magazines, TV and radio broadcasts — and provide valuable intelligence. Prior to and throughout World War II, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) learned of Nazi military movements and infrastructure changes by listening to German radio news casts.
The U.S. joined the effort by monitoring Japanese short wave broadcasts from the West Coast and the two allies shared the information. The effort proved so valuable that both nations continued to listen – and later to watch – news and propaganda broadcasts from Radio Moscow and its eastern bloc Warsaw Pact allies as well as from communist China and North Korea. Another valuable open source medium were their wire services — TASS in Russian and English, China’s Xinhua News Agency, and KCNA of North Korea.
Today ‘Open Source’ Has a New and Far More Technical Meaning
Students of homeland security and intelligence studies will find that the term “open source” has a new and far more technical meaning with more relevance and immediacy in today’s world of cyber warfare. The term refers to the internet and social media as well as the new world of artificial intelligence and other state-of-the-art technologies that IC analysts pore over on a daily basis.
As Erik Kleinsmith, Associate Vice President, Intelligence Studies, National Security & Homeland Security at APUS, explained: “Open-Source Intelligence, commonly known as OSINT, encompasses media, social media, or any other type of information that is available publicly. Because it is relatively easy to access among other intelligence disciplines, even the most classified operations can comprise a majority of OSINT information decision-makers rely on.”
To discuss the open source phenomenon, the AFCEA Intelligence Committee recently organized a webinar titled “Intelligence Analysis Tradecraft in an Open and Rapid World” moderated by retired former CIA Director for Analysis Fran Moore.
The panelists were David Gordon, Senior Advisor for Geo-Economics & Strategy International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS); Dr. Eric Haseltine, Chairman of the Board, U.S. Technology Leadership Council and former CTO for National Intelligence in the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI); Terry Roberts, Founder, President and CEO of online cybersecurity risk evaluation firm Whitehawk, Inc.; and Greg Ryckman, Director for Analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
Moore began the discussion by pointing out that open source intelligence is used today “both to eliminate threats and close intelligence gaps for the U.S. intelligence community but also for the private sector.”
Gordon, a former high-ranking CIA official, added that “For many, if not most of the issues I was dealing with a lot of the basic sources of information — and the sources of insight in order to know what to look for on the classified side — came from open source.”
He stressed the importance of training analysts to use open source information as a tool “to maximize the impact of clandestinely acquired information.”
Roberts First Saw the Value of OSINT when She Was Director of a Military Intelligence Program
Roberts said her “ah-ha” moment about the value and opportunities of OSINT came in 2005 when she was the director of a military intelligence program. “We discovered that satellite imagery that was commercial had reached a level of fidelity that was comparable to some of our [classified] national capabilities.” So why wouldn’t we leverage something that was based on commercial R&D and then use our valuable sources and methods to fill in the gaps? she said.
Hazeltine, a neuroscientist, said during his years at CIA’s Open Source office he focused on leading indicators of things like social unrest and cyberattacks. Now he and his wife who is a physician are focused on the human element of open source intelligence. “How can you predict disease outbreaks? How can you predict certain seasonal diseases? We were very involved with the coronavirus in looking at when did who know what and where?”
You Can Look at Aggregate Populations with OSINT and Know Much of What They Are Going to Do
Hazeltine explained that “when you’re looking at open source, instead of looking at an individual target, you can look at aggregate populations.” Thanks to the internet and mobile devices, “we can know pretty much what whole populations are going to do.”
“The most important technologies are not the ones that help you find the needle in the haystack… but those that make it easy for humans to find all that stuff and understand it. We have information overload in open source exponentially greater than the worst that we have in the worst part of the intel community. The volume, velocity and variety of stuff is just staggering,” said Hazeltine.
The real issue, he added, is the need to have “humans who are skilled and smart but not necessarily IT people.” And he predicted a future of greater unsupervised learning. Hazeltine spoke of a company called Unsupervised “that gives you answers to questions you didn’t think to ask because it sees patterns in the data that are not random and it calls them to your attention.”
Hazeltine said he believes “those kinds of serendipitous things, those unsupervised things,” are far more important than what he would think to ask for.
Gordon cautioned against “collection bias” against open source data, saying open source intelligence can provide answers to between 75% and 80% of the questions intelligence analysts are asked.
Ryckman praised the abilities of the young generation of analysts who are comfortable with all forms of data analytics including open source information. “That’s creating the right kind of energy to solve these problems. I’m encouraged by them.”