What Is Open Source Intelligence and How Are Companies Using It?An Altamar podcast with
Open source intelligence (OSINT) is a fancy term for the gathering and analysis of publicly available data from unlimited and all-encompassing sources. This powerful, new tool is reshaping the frontlines of war, terror and other geopolitical threats.
The Altamar team of Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen spoke to Arthur Bradley, the open-source intelligence manager at Tech Against Terrorism, a U.N.-backed, public-private partnership that works with the global tech industry to counter terrorist use of the internet while respecting human rights.
Open source intelligence is a tool, and like any tool, its purpose and morality depend on how it’s used. Analysts use open sources to find illegal activity and human rights abuses and to identify threats. Bad actors use it to plan and target networks through hacking and cyberterrorism.
Finding the Needles in the Haystack
Ukraine has used geolocation from Russian soldiers sending pictures back home to figure out the location of Russian troops. Companies benefit from it in employee screening, research and analytics. OSINT is changing the nature of geopolitical threats — and the defense against them. How will this powerful tool be used next?
We asked Bradley to define open-source intelligence: “It essentially comprises sifting through the vast amounts of visible information to find those needles in the haystack. Finding value and actionable intelligence and information that others might not think to focus on or analyze. I should also say that although the majority of open-source intelligence relates to the internet, it’s not just the internet. But the ubiquity of the internet in everyone’s lives means that it’s often the predominant information source.”
Tracking Terrorist Activity
What are some success stories of OSINT? Bradley began with his organization, Tech Against Terrorism. He said, “We are on the front lines, tracking and analyzing terrorist exploitation of the internet. The intelligence that we produce aims to assist tech companies and governments on the latest tactics and strategies that terrorist groups are using to remain active online and to recruit and spread propaganda, including things like the latest platforms that they might be using or the ways that they might be evading content moderation.”
What are some others? Bradley continued, “There’s a brilliant investigation by BBC Africa Eye in 2018 looking at an incident of war crimes by the Cameroonian military. Really, they managed to kind of prove the Cameroonian government wrong when they said that this incident was fake news. Really clever kind of geolocation work there. Likewise is the use of satellite imagery, things like the Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang.”
OSINT can do incredible good in the world. But it’s used by everyone, not just the good guys. How has it been used by both the Ukrainian defense, but also in Russia’s invasion? Bradley said, “The ability to use open-source information for intelligence has benefited and threatened both sides.
“OSINT is proving critical in disproving some of Russia’s disinformation around, for example, the war crimes in Bucha and other areas. On the other side, it’s quite clear from the online networks affiliated with them that they’re actively monitoring the online footprint of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians based there.”
What about the incidents of attacks on government (and democracy) in January 2021 in the U.S., and in Brazil more recently? Was that a failure of OSINT to not predict those events? What happened in those cases? Bradley said, “I think often, with these kinds of incidents, it’s often extremely obvious in hindsight and actually in the buildup to a lot of these kinds of instances. In the U.S. case, a whole load of experts warned about this for a very long time.
“In terms of far-right extremism, one challenge that we have in our monitoring of terrorist communications and threats is that it can be very difficult to differentiate between [real threats and] — don’t know if I really like the word — keyboard warriors. There’s a lot of bluster in the messaging of those networks and it can be difficult to differentiate between the two.”
How Do You Protect Against Bias in OSINT?
Bradley said, “Clearly there’s an issue in terms of filter bubbles online. I, on a personal basis, am, to some extent, skeptical of how new that is. But in terms of bias, it’s just extremely important that you’re able to be aware of your own potential biases and also that you’re getting your information from balanced sources really to ensure that. So, I think there’s always going to be a human element to it.”
Altamar host Muni Jensen asked about the relationship between mining all intelligence and human rights and privacy. How does this work protect individual liberties in this process? Bradley responded, “Clearly there’s a risk that open source intelligence infringes on privacy, even if it’s not breaking any laws.”
Bradley said, “It’s quite common for companies to have open-source intelligence as part of looking at competitors’ operations, branding, marketing strategy, also penetration testing their own operational security so they could potentially be red teaming themselves to find information that they might not realize is publicly available to kind of try and remove that. Also potentially monitoring security threats to the organization and personnel.
“Another potential use could be kind of carrying out open-source research or open source intelligence for pre-employment checks, quite a mundane use for it. Or they might potentially hire firms to investigate potential new clients before engaging in business with them.”
The Impact On Journalism
Peter Schechter asked about how OSINT is impacting journalism. How is the work of a reporter evolving? Bradley said, “News organizations are able to source information for stories and find their scoops potentially without leaving their office or without talking to anyone. A number of major news outlets have their own open-source investigative departments and their reporting is kind of based on these investigations. I know The New York Times and the BBC for sure have those.
“Likewise, the tools like CrowdTangle, which is an open-source research tool that Meta bought. I’m not sure what year they bought it. It’s great tools like that for journalists and resources to get oversight on the spread of misinformation or extremist content online. That said, I think access to the tool has been fairly significantly limited in recent months. There is a risk here that the kind of increasing adoption of OSINT in press reporting might risk leading to misinformation or potentially even disinformation.”