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Travelling at the Speed of OSINT

April 4, 2023

By: Matthew Hope, Business Development Executive at PenLink-Cobwebs Technologies UK

The UK Ministry of Defense and three Armed Services work diligently to detect, deter and defend the nation from diverse threats, though this formidable task has become even more daunting in recent years with the ever-increasing importance of the digital battlefield and proliferation of tech-dependent threats such as Unscrewed Air Systems. Defense agencies must continuously lean on a variety of intelligence collection methods to strengthen the Digital Intelligence ecosystem.

Open-source intelligence (OSINT), or a more apt description, Digital Intelligence, can significantly enhance the way defense intelligence analysts gather and fuse information with data from other intelligence sources to make better decisions on both the physical and digital battlefields. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has underscored the growing importance of OSINT.

As has been widely publicized, large amounts of the intelligence used by Ukraine in advance of and during the Russian military invasion came from OSINT technology, including commercial satellite photos of troop movements, as well as information extracted from news sources, online messaging and social media platforms and other publicly available sources.

UK Defense Intelligence obviously use various types of information and intelligence collection, such as SIGINT (signals intelligence), HUMINT (human intelligence), IMINT (imagery intelligence) and OSINT, to protect its people, assets, values and interests, both at home and abroad. These methods are valuable on their own, but they are more effective when combined to support the fused defense intelligence ecosystem.

Incorporating OSINT into the Analytical Toolbox

OSINT platforms, at their core, are a technology that allows for the seamless search and analysis of publicly available sources. Pulling from the open, deep and dark web, an OSINT solution can be a key force multiplier for military and defense analysts in their intelligence endeavors.

Incorporating OSINT platforms into the intelligence toolboxes of defense agencies has a plethora of benefits best summed up by four adjectives: timelyaccuraterelevant and actionable.

A key intelligence quality, OSINT is often timely due to its publicly published online nature. OSINT platforms utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) vastly increase the speed of collection, analysis and dissemination, while monitoring tools ensure analysts are alerted immediately. Often generated directly by civilians in the area of interest, OSINT holds a significant advantage over other forms of collect.

Despite OSINT source material often being vulnerable to manipulation, AI-driven technology assists in generating accurate intelligence, as platforms can pinpoint data precisely, whether spotting bots or finding corroborating sources. Exposing disinformation (the deliberate spreading of falsehoods) can often reveal the intent of hostile actors, and doing so publicly is a useful means to discredit these actors and gain credibility in the information operations domain.

OSINT is relevant, as AI-powered platforms can aid operations teams in filtering out noise to find exactly what is needed.

Lastly, actionable describes how the speed and scope of OSINT comes together with AI to refine massive amounts of unstructured data into digestible intelligence with insights that can be acted upon. The fact that OSINT often carries lower classification allows for faster and wider distribution to effectively enhance situational awareness across the battlefield.

OSINT information, as with other sources, can potentially be riddled with mis/disinformation, biases and propaganda, so defense agencies must adopt robust processes to discount and verify information. Strong OSINT platforms can automate many of these processes, from the actual analyses to report generation, reducing manual work while allowing analysts more time to screen for mis/disinformation and carry out deeper cross analysis with other sources. When coupled with AI, the benefits of OSINT are further amplified, speeding up the intelligence cycle and resulting in effective assessments closer to real time.

OSINT: A Partially Hidden Gem

Unfortunately, many in the defense intelligence field lack a true understanding of what is possible with the use of OSINT due to misunderstanding the range of publicly available sources and resulting capabilities, as well as how exactly the intelligence is generated. Another obstacle impeding analysts from taking advantage of OSINT’s capabilities is the simple tribalism between the variety of intelligence disciplines.

Additionally, the fear of OSINT’s susceptibility to manipulation causes valid worries for agencies. Fortunately, AI-driven platforms assist human analysts to filter noise and misleading information in order to provide optimal situational awareness on the digital battlefield.

While there will often be potential risks associated with any innovative technology’s use, not engaging with the OSINT digital environment is akin to wearing a blindfold on the battlefield. Through effective training, standardizing operating procedures and keeping ethics at the top of the mind, intelligence and military analysts can develop operational confidence around OSINT use, informing agencies of the immense defense benefits available.

UK defense and military organizations must accept OSINT Digital Intelligence within the wider intelligence community, understanding exactly what Digital Intelligence can and cannot do to acknowledge the value of it alongside the more established forms of intelligence. OSINT will never replace other intelligence capabilities, rather it should complement them through fusion within the defense intelligence enterprise ecosystem.

The Time is Now for Open-Source Intelligence 

With the exponential growth seen in the digital landscape over the last few years and our continued reliance upon it, we must accept how important the digital battlefield is and will become for defense agencies.

Although OSINT is growing in significance due to the incredible expansion of the digital ecosystem and the subsequent importance the technology plays in national security, geopolitics and human security worldwide, there is still a way to go until all military and defense organizations in the UK are equipped effectively with the correct tools to harness this powerful form of collection. Agencies should not be frightened by OSINT’s novelty, but excited by its possibilities.

Now is the time for UK military, defense and national security agencies to adopt robust, AI-powered Digital Intelligence platforms to save lives, achieve operational goals and protect the nation at home and abroad. Now is the time to travel at the speed of OSINT.

Matt Hope

Matt Hope has spent the past 20 years in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency focused roles primarily in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. During this time he has been both a frontline consumer and collector of diverse forms of intelligence and is now using his experience to help organizations understand the opportunities and threats presented by Digital Intelligence in the evolving physical and digital threat landscape.



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