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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news, we discuss “social media’s first war.” One thought leader suggests that classification may be overused, especially when it comes to data collected via publicly available information (PAI). We examine the testimony of experts before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on top threats to the U.S., and the Modern War Institute examines how the government can keep from being outpaced in OSINT.
This is the OSINT news of the week:
OSINT is changing warfare
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, tracked and predicted in part thanks to open-source information and social media intelligence (SOCMINT), has demonstrated how OSINT is changing the battlefield. Geo-located photos and videos posted to social media by Russian citizens helped the west observe the buildup of troops in the run up to the conflict. Since then, Russia has severely cracked down on its citizens’ exposure to social media, but an unintended consequence of the measures has resulted in its own media sources being cut off from the rest of the world—a narrative void Ukraine has been ready to fill.
Ukraine has shown the importance of popular opinion when it comes to worldwide OSINT. This could be an important lesson for the U.S. military as it prepares how OSINT could be utilized to its advantage and against it in a future conflict. One adversary, China, has already pre-positioned itself to counter western OSINT efforts by heavily censoring its citizens' social media use. In this way, the U.S. has several vulnerabilities when it comes to OSINT. The ability to hide force or employ surprise will be sufficiently hindered in modern warfare thanks to OSINT.
“The unified global OSINT effort aimed at a single objective poses a critical question: how can the United States replicate the success of Ukraine and its supporters to ensure the OSINT community advantages the United States in a future conflict?”— Owen Vandersmith, U.S. Naval Institute
The secrecy trap
As OSINT plays a larger role in the intelligence community’s (IC) collection efforts, the general course of action is to lump the findings in with classified materials. This tendency makes it harder to counter narratives from China and Russia, and creates a slow response time, according to The Cipher Brief. Some praised the intentional declassification strategy by the IC in the lead up to the Ukraine invasion, where information sharing helped warn our allies and head off the false flag narrative Russia had planned. However, some suggest perhaps these OSINT findings never should have been classified in the first place.
The author suggests a new OSINT agency within the IC would simply perpetuate more needless secrecy within the organization, and an agency created outside of the government sphere would be more productive. With a ground-up approach, Rasmussen suggests OSINT could be scaled at a greater level without falling into the IC’s routines. Creating an OSINT agency that doesn’t require security clearance for employment would help the U.S. scale to meet the threat of China’s purported 100,000 analysts moderating OSINT with a focus on the U.S., as estimated by Georgetown University.
“The next great generational challenge is maximizing the analytic power of open source and public data to keep the US and our allies safe and informed.”— Chris Rasmussen, The Cipher Brief
House Intelligence Committee’s top focus
Top leaders from think tanks testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to give their top concerns. The priorities identified included the war in Ukraine, China, technological threats and drug trafficking. Building frameworks to meet the needs of these challenges is a priority. The exposure of benefits and pitfalls of OSINT since Russia’s invasion also shaped the conversation.
Some thought leaders called for an overhaul of how OSINT is operated within the IC, while others, such as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, warned against major upheavals due to continued threats.
The potential for AI to spawn cyber attacks or weapons was another leading concern. The president of RAND Corporation cited synthetic biology and AI as other areas to watch for threats.
“Technology, he predicted, will continue to outpace government reform or policy initiatives aiming to curb its power or potential.”— Laura Courchesne, Lawfare Blog
Outpaced but not outspent
Modern War Institute outlines the challenges of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the IC face when it comes to properly utilizing the availability of open-source information. The ability to find, vet and share data to create open-source intelligence reports is falling behind that of those in the private sector and journalistic organizations.
The authors present two solutions to the persistent problems with keeping up with open-source information. The first is simply to let the private sector take the lead on OSINT. It would require government entities to rely on private companies for the bulk of OSINT collection, verification and sharing. This could create a knowledge gap between public and private sectors, and biases and practices affect the quality of the data.
The second proposed solution is to adapt the process in the IC to create an organization that takes up the mantle of open source. A new agency could serve as a cross-organizational pillar for OSINT as a primary function.
“Such a system and process would, over time, create a searchable database of cataloged content for use by public affairs personnel, psychological operations units, and other US government organizations and international partners. The database would also support legal efforts to catalog evidence of possible war crimes.”— Brian Cheng, Scott Fisher and Jason C. Morgan, Modern War Institute
Every other week, we collect OSINT news from around the world. We continue to keep a close watch on Russia's war in Ukraine, especially on Twitter. We’re also gathering information on cyberthreats, federal intelligence strategies and much more. Find us on Twitter and share the OSINT news you’re keeping up with.
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