The Third Industrial Revolution, at the end of the 90’s and early 2000’s, created a new wave of globalization, or as the World Economic Forum puts it, a “Globalization on steroids”, which would once again change society. The impact of this wave was so significant that it is hard for us to remember a world before the comfort of technology, not just for the individual but also for the community. It allowed us to take a new step in our social evolution, providing new technologies in different areas of our society, such as medicine, economics, the so called “hard sciences”, communication, and infrastructure.
Never has the access to information been so easy as in the current era. One need only have an internet connection, open a browser and search for something in Google to get an immediate result. Although this simplicity may bring up questions over how that affects our day-to-day lives, it became an essential tool for separate sectors of our society, especially when collecting information.
Information has become such a valuable commodity that many compare its value to the value of oil. Access to information has always been a privilege and hard to take hold of, besides the associated cost of acquiring information over means that up until recently were too expensive and only some states had access to. This cost was mitigated by the thrust of new technologies, the sharing of information became easier and more frequent, becoming a daily process for society at large, being further driven by social media. It is now possible to have faster, real-time access to many events worldwide.
OSINT, or Open Source Intelligence, became a complement to classic Intelligence, being that one of the advantages is that access is available to anybody. It is necessary, however, to define how we reach the field of OSINT, and for that purpose, we have to define two terms: Open Source Data (OSD) and Open Source Information (OSIF). We will use the definitions included in the NATO OSINT Handbook, although other institutions may have slightly different definitions.
Open Source Data (OSD), is “the raw print, broadcast, oral debriefing or other form of information from a primary source. It can be a photograph, a tape recording, a commercial satellite image, or a personal letter from an individual.”, meaning, any public information that we have access to, which leads to the second term, Open Source Information (OSIF), which, according to the manual, is “comprised of data that can be put together, generally by an editorial process that provides some filtering and validation as well as presentation management. OSIF is generic information that is usually widely disseminated. Newspapers, books, broadcast, and general daily reports are part of the OSIF world.”, meaning, after having access to information, there is a process to validate such information. We can think of the journalistic process, by comparison. This process is finalized with the creation of OSINT, which is “information that has been deliberately discovered, discriminated, distilled, and disseminated to a select audience, generally the commander and their immediate staff, in order to address a specific question. OSINT, in other words, applies the proven process of intelligence to the broad diversity of open sources of information, and creates intelligence”, meaning, it’s about determining how to use the information we collected and analyzed for our diverse goals.
With these definitions in mind, we may now move to some examples of souces of OSINT. Before the tech boom, television and radio were the main public sources of access to varied information, but with the arrival of the internet, the latter became the main source of information, not only because of its ease of access, as well as the diversity and amount of information available. Other examples may be access to online maps (eg. Google Earth or Yandex maps) to locate certain events or see the developments in a certain location. It’s clear that, although OSINT has its advantages, in this case one of the disadvantages is that access to satellite imagery is not done in real time, as the cost of this information would be prohibitive, besides security issues that may impede its distribution to the larger public. As an example, we can see the pictures below which show presence of Russian jets, likely Sukhoi Su-34, in the Bassel Al-Assad airport, in Syria, after April 2016 and up until at least May 2020. Other more interesting tools are airplane tracking tools, which may be used to track specific airplanes belonging to certain persons of particular interest or armed forces.
Social media also have a crucial role in this field, and its large scale of users allows information to flow very rapidly all over the network. Apps like Twitter are often used to spread content in real time, many times through the so called “bots” (accounts made specifically to widen the propaganda circle), or, more specifically in the case of Russia, the Telegram app is widely used to post events in Russia and Eastern Europe.
OSINT techniques are valuable for different levels, whether for individuals such as students, or for businesses handling matters in the creation of OSINT, such as BBC Monitoring, which is dedicated to OSINT creation through handling information from global media sources. Other cases may also have applications – businesses such as Stratfor use OSINT as a form of analysis of diverse topics and sells its services to interested businesses or individuals. It’s through these businesses that States may benefit from OSINT, leading them to access to unbiased information, even security forces. As ABC News Australia described OSINT may “turn normal people into intelligence analysts”.
This way, OSINT becomes a valuable tool, which in some way is used daily in the most diverse areas of society, even if with all of its limitations. The overload of information also makes the job of researchers and analysts more difficult, additionally with increasing and more sophisticated false information, and with various terrorist groups and others in recruitment or propaganda campaigns. It is in no way a substitute to classic Intelligence, but it is a valid complement which helps us analyze and think about various issues in the international society.