July 16, 2021

How the Intelligence Community Can Get Better at Open Source Intel

By Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Jr. (Ret.) and Neil Wiley

During his House Appropriations Committee testimony on May 27, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley presciently stated that a country must master ubiquitous intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance to win the next major war. Indeed, in an era in which the United States can no longer rely on economic or military overmatch to guarantee its security, we need a more intimate understanding of an adversary’s goals, intentions, capabilities, and actions to safeguard our national interests. The chairman’s challenge begs important questions. How do we ensure that our civilian and military leaders enjoy decision advantage in an increasingly contested environment? Channeling the mindset of Sun Tzu, how can we win before the first shot is fired—or prevail without any shots at all?

Senior leaders consistently assert that the key to decision advantage in an ISR construct is timely acquisition and analysis of the best information. Historically, the analysis produced to meet intelligence requirements was based predominantly on data acquired by government collectors and government technologies. Unlike open data sources, intelligence officers can task sensitive intelligence sources and methods to target the specific people, places and events that drive the intelligence needs of our policymakers and commanders.

The ubiquity and accessibility of this public data disrupts the assumed superiority of the government’s proprietary intelligence sources of methods

But the world has changed. In today’s digital age, people and organizations carry out activities using technology that projects data about their background, actions, and preferences onto public platforms. Simultaneously, private companies have built business models around co-opting the two pursuits that animate most intelligence work—identifying and predicting personal behaviors. The combined result of these phenomena is a data ecosystem that couples extraordinary quantities of information with sophisticated processing tools to produce stunningly diverse insights—including insights relevant to the hardest intelligence problems.

The ubiquity and accessibility of this public data disrupts the assumed superiority of the government’s proprietary intelligence sources of methods—a reality the national security community has been slow to recognize and accept. The open-source intelligence, or OSINT, derived from the vast pools of publicly/commercially available information, or PAI/CAI, in the public domain will not replace traditional intelligence—but at the very least it can enrich and enhance this data, and for many intelligence requirements it may be a better, safer and cheaper option of first resort. OSINT can also provide overwatch for areas and topics that fall outside the zone of active IC coverage.

Read the full article from Defense One.

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