Spy Agencies Must Realize the Power of Open Source Intelligence
The author is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute think tank. This article was co-authored by Alexander Harris, Research Associate at the Alan Turing Institute
For decades, images transmitted by surveillance satellites in space landed on desks in highly secure government buildings and were seen only by carefully vetted people. Today, senior Ukrainian government officials are publicly calling on companies to provide real-time geospatial data to help support their armed forces with actionable intelligence on enemy troop movements.
This type of change is not exclusive to satellite imagery and the commercial sector. The exponential increase in publicly available data means that citizen investigators are now able to track military buildups, expose human rights abuses and discredit false narratives peddled by state actors in part of the process. A notable example is the Bellingcat investigation deconstructing and refuting the Kremlin’s denial of involvement in the downing of flight MH17, with evidence subsequently used by the international team investigating the incident.
Hiding is now much more difficult than before, as covert operations are easier to discover. Searching has also become easier. Clues to hostile networks and activity are best identified using freely available, open-source tools that can help identify where and when an image or video was taken, as well as through paid database subscriptions. business satellite image data.
The growth of these techniques and their ability to turn publicly available data into open source intelligence, or Osint, raises a central question: how can governments capitalize on these new opportunities within a security infrastructure designed for secret intelligence gathering from clandestine sources?
Secret intelligence will rightly remain an integral part of what they do. However, it is no longer enough to ensure the security of a country and its institutions. In the months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and during the conflict itself, there was a wealth of high-quality open source reporting and information available online.
Now that Twitter provides a platform for a growing number of citizen investigators to track the whereabouts of Russian military equipment and personnel, state intelligence agencies are no longer the sole arbiter of the public access to information. This, in turn, changes the government’s risk calculation for declassifying information. The “reasonable threshold of secrecy” – the justification required to keep certain pieces of information secret – is raised. As GCHQ director Sir Jeremy Fleming told an audience this year, “deeply secret intelligence is released to ensure the truth is heard. At this rate and on this scale, it is truly unprecedented.
The benefits for spy agencies are multiple. Intelligence that can be gathered from the Internet or a public database is a cost effective and minimally intrusive course of action, which frees up resources for information that cannot be discovered from open source information . A recent example is a British intelligence briefing in January suggesting that Russia planned to overthrow the elected government in Kyiv and install a puppet regime led by former Ukrainian politician Yevheniy Murayev.
While open-source information was able to document in detail the build-up of Russian troops (the “who”, the “what” and the “where”), it could not explain whether the goal was to create coercive leverage in negotiations or to prepare for direct negotiations. military action (the “why” and the “what next”). This example demonstrates the need for a mutually reinforcing relationship between Osint and secret intelligence, where the two are combined to produce meaningful analysis.
Despite some promising signs, our new report shows that decisive action is still needed to overcome the obstacles to progress. This includes the development of more professionalized structures for the verification, preservation and dissemination of Osint, so that it is subject to the same rigorous processes as traditional intelligence.
Given the technical constraints on intelligence analysts’ access to unclassified sources, creative solutions are needed to ensure they are equipped to integrate information from Osint specialists. It is also necessary to confront the deep-rooted preferences for “secret” information that have historically disadvantaged the use of Osint within the intelligence community.
Without dedicated long-term investment in Osint’s capabilities and training, what could be a revolution in working practices will only ever be a short-term boost. The concept has proven itself on Ukrainian battlefields – the least governments can do now is maximize its potential.