The August 7th issue of The Economist has an editorial and a feature article about the advances of open-source intelligence capabilities once reserved for superpowers.
Open-source intelligence, also known as OSINT, is not a recent development. However, advances in technology have increased the opportunities for citizens not employed by an intelligence agency to find and disclose information that governments might want to remain classified.
The article opens with a story about Decker Eveleth, a college senior, who successfully searched through satellite pictures of western China to determine if the rumors of new Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch sites were true. Mr. Eveleth was a frequent visitor to Geo4Nonpro, a crowdsourced project that let hobbyists and experts collaborate to annotate satellite pictures for potential weapons of mass destruction sites.
The Geo4Nonpro project was sponsored by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey. The countries of focus were China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea.
Satellite data is not the only source of OSINT information. According to The Economist, there are websites that track the routes taken by aircraft (Flightradar24) and ships (MarineTraffic), as well as 3D modelling packages that let you determine what type of object might be casting a shadow in a picture. In addition, there are terabytes of video footage from cell phones tagged and uploaded to social media sites daily, and collaborative projects that link academics, activists, journalists, and people who may have attributes of all three groups.
The OSINT community has access to much data from satellites, thanks to a bevy of commercial satellite operators. One satellite operator, Planet, has launched cameras on small satellites since 2013 and now has 150 with which it plans to photograph all of the Earth’s land surface every day.
Planet offers low-resolution and high-resolution pictures. Similarly, Maxar and Airbus also provide high-resolution satellite images.
There is a law that the U.S. government could use to suppress some of the high-resolution pictures, but it has not been effective given that these pictures could be obtained from non-American commercial satellite operators. In fact, the U.S. government is a major customer because the commercial pictures are used as supplements to its classified activities. The commercial pictures can also be used publicly without revealing anything about the capabilities of our spy satellites.
Better photo hardware and software for cell phones has created better hardware and software for satellites. Planet’s smaller imaging satellites are much improved over the first ones that they launched in 2013.
There are radar-satellite startups that offer synthetic aperture technology, enabling them to take pictures of surface features through clouds, foliage, and even thin roofs. Hyperspectral sensors, able to analyze light beyond the humanly visible bands, can reveal wakes in turbid water, the health of crops, and even new paint versus old paint on surfaces. Some of these devices provide data that cannot be seen but which can be read and interpreted by artificial intelligence (AI) software.
There are some ethical quandaries that OSINT researchers sometimes encounter. One example cited by The Economist was when a Stanford professor’s analysis led to a theory as to why North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles were failing. She decided it would be wrong to publish it because it might help the North Koreans fix their problem. She is now working with OSINT organizations to develop a code of conduct for such ethical quandaries.
One of the benefits of open-source intelligence is that it allows organizations to challenge the narratives that nations promote. OSINT groups have provided information about North Korea’s nuclear abilities that challenge information provided by the White House to the public. They have also provided information about probable locations of secret U.S. military bases located overseas.
As technologies improve and increase data available to the public and researchers, OSINT capabilities will expand. Per the Office of the National Director of Intelligence (DNI), there are two entities with the primary responsibilities for collecting open-source intelligence information.
One of these organizations is the Open-Source Enterprise (OSE), operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The other is the National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s Global Exploitation Intelligence Group (GX), operated by the U.S. Air Force.
Open-source intelligence reports are selectively released by the DNI, even though theoretically, the information is already available. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) issued a statement opposing the closing of the open door for U.S. distribution of OSINT information.
As the advances of technology make it easier to collect, analyze, and distribute data, I suspect that OSINT discoveries and publications will increase. Having sources and analysts outside of the national intelligence communities is a great check and balance on a system with many of its classified secrets. The future of OSINT appears to be nearly unlimited.