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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news: Intelligence community figures out how to ride the wave of open-source information, privacy advocates raise alarms about the use of personally-identifiable information, spies need a new OSINT agency, and a mock-up of a missile launcher sparks a frenzy of conspiracy theories.

This is the OSINT news of the week:

OSINT overload: intelligence agencies seek new ways to manage open-source intel

Not long ago, the term “open-source intelligence” might have invoked a lone plane-spotter watching an airbase or a solitary linguist listening to a foreign-language radio broadcast. Today, OSINT has become a critical intelligence tool  that’s powered by AI and machine learning, big data analytics and large language models. A growing number of companies are offering commercial solutions that can pull and process data from smartphones and other sources to generate unprecedented amounts of information that can be utilized for intelligence purposes. 
For the 18 agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), this means rethinking how they engage with the private sector to integrate this wave of information into their practices, analyze it within the context of classified data, and scale their operations in the most cost-effective way. With commercial and publicly available data becoming more powerful, the IC leadership recognizes the need to find solutions for tapping into the power of OSINT without being overwhelmed by it.

“We can do it securely. It’s not technology that’s the problem. It’s acquisition and process and something of policy that’s getting in the way right now.”

Casey Blackburn, Assistant Director for emerging technology at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Spy agencies publish guidance on using commercial data

The Intelligence Community is routinely leveraging commercial data in their daily work. This practice, as the availability and sensitivity of this data grows, has led some lawmakers and privacy advocates to raise alarms about how the IC acquires and handles potentially sensitive information.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has issued a new framework that aims to guide the intelligence community on the best practices for using commercial data, declaring they must have procedures to safeguard collected data that can include  info on Americans. ODNI is requesting that IC groups provide documentation describing the types of information that they acquire, and that sensitive data would be periodically reviewed.

“A report released last year said that the IC frequently buys troves of Americans’ data with few checks and balances, and that use of such information without oversight presents a privacy threat.”

David DiMolfetta, Cybersecurity Reporter, Nextgov/FCW

The case for a new OSINT agency

“The power of OSINT should be harnessed to disrupt the culture of secrecy,” argues Ben Scott, author of the Lawfare story on why the IC needs a dedicated OSINT agency. Mr. Scott’s article recounts the decades-long battle to create a broad program to gather and organize global information available over the internet and the ongoing criticism that the IC community faces for their failure to make adequate use of OSINT. 
At the heart of the problem, according to Mr. Scott, is a fundamental mismatch between IC institutions devoted to secret intelligence and the emerging information environment. While states have always competed to obtain and protect data, there is a growing need to be the fastest to gain actionable insights and act on them. The establishment of a dedicated OSINT agency, he concludes, would be a step toward reconfiguring the IC for the challenges of the information age and should improve both OSINT and secret intelligence gathering practices while optimizing the relationships between them.

“The fact that it has taken the IC almost two decades to start addressing fundamental issues—such as establishing integrated OSINT collection management and common training standards—suggests that the IC’s suboptimal exploitation of OSINT is not simply the result of turf battles, bureaucratic structures, or technical capabilities. The IC’s culture of secrecy also constrains its embrace of OSINT.”

Ben Scott, Senior Advisor at the National Security College

An image sparks China-Ukraine conspiracy theories

An image has emerged on social media: a U.S.-made Patriot air defense missile launcher appears to be headed from Ukraine to China. The undated photograph has ignited a slew of conspiracy theories about illegal weapons trade, however experts have told The War Zone that the photograph, in fact, shows personnel transporting a realistic mock-up of the Patriot system. 
The War Zone has conducted a thorough analysis of the image, attempting to discern the locations where it was taken (likely China), and whether the mock-up could have come from Ukraine or is made locally. The use of facsimiles of threat systems are prevalent – for instance, to train pilots and sensor operators on how to spot and deal with them in the heat of battle. The U.S. also has high-fidelity mockups of foreign threat systems, especially air defense types.

“China is particularly well known for making full scale replicas of all types of things, especially those relating to military hardware. So, at this point, it seems clear that the image in question does not depict a real Patriot launcher.”

Howard Altman, Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone

Every other week, we collect OSINT news from around the world. We’re also gathering information on cyberthreats, federal intelligence strategies and much more. Follow us on X and share the OSINT news you’re keeping up with.

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