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The promise of open source intelligence

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TIT BIG the hope of the 1990s and 2000s was that the Internet would be a force for openness and freedom. As Stewart Brand, a pioneer of online communities, said, “Information wants to be free because the cost of disseminating it is getting lower and lower. It was not to be. Bad information often drives out good information. Authoritarian states have co-opted technologies that are supposed to loosen their grip. Information was used as a weapon of war. Amid this disappointment, a development offers new hope: the emerging era of open source intelligence (OSINT).

New sensors, from mundane dashboard cameras to satellites that can see through the electromagnetic spectrum, are examining the planet and its inhabitants like never before. The information they collect is less and less expensive. Satellite images cost several thousand dollars 20 years ago, today they are often provided free of charge and are of incomparably superior quality. A photograph of any location on Earth, of a disaster oil tanker, or of the routes taken by joggers in a city is available with just a few clicks. And online communities and collaborative tools, like Slack, allow amateurs and experts alike to use this cornucopia of information to solve puzzles and unearth mischief at astonishing speed.

Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite images to document ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Nanosatellites mark the automatic identification system of vessels that fish illegally. Amateur detectives have helped Europol, the European Union’s police agency, investigate the sexual exploitation of children by identifying geographic clues in the background of the photographs. Even hedge funds routinely track the movements of corporate executives in private jets, watched by a network of amateurs around the world, to predict mergers and acquisitions.

OSINT thus strengthens civil society, strengthens law enforcement and makes markets more efficient. It can also humiliate some of the most powerful countries in the world.

Faced with vehement denials from the Kremlin, Bellingcat, an investigative group, meticulously demonstrated Russia’s role in destroying Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on Ukraine in 2014, using little more than a handful of photographs, satellite images and basic geometry. He then identified the Russian agents who attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in England in 2018. Aanalysts and amateur journalists have used OSINT to reconstruct the full extent of the Uyghur internment camps in Xinjiang. In recent weeks, researchers looking at satellite images have spotted China building hundreds of nuclear missile silos in the desert.

Such information empowerment promises to have profound effects. The decentralized and egalitarian character of OSINT erodes the power of the traditional arbiter of truth and lies, especially governments and their spies and soldiers. For those like this newspaper who think the secret can too easily be abused by those in power, OSINT is welcome.

The likelihood of the truth being discovered increases the cost of wrongdoing for governments. Although OSINT does not prevent Russia from invading Ukraine or China from building its gulag, it exposes the fragility of their lies. Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, is right when he describes his organization as “an intelligence agency for the people”. No wonder the Russian spy chief objected, most recently this month.

Liberal democracies will also remain more honest. Citizens will no longer have to trust their governments. The media will have new ways of holding them to account. Today’s open sources and methods would have shed light on the 2003 Bush administration accusation that Iraq was developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. This would have subjected the US invasion of the country to further scrutiny. It might even have prevented it.

Some will warn that OSINT threatens national security, as when, for example, researchers use data from fitness trackers to remotely reveal CIA outposts and radar satellites to locate US missile defense systems. But if OSINT can tell the world such things, the enemies of a country are already able to know them. To pretend otherwise does not make states safer.

Others will point out that OSINT could be wrong. After the Boston Marathon attack in 2013, Internet users scanned the crime scene and identified several suspects. They were all innocent passers-by. Or OSINT could be used by bad actors to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories.

However, every source of information is fallible, and scrutiny of images and data is more empirical than most. Therefore, when OSINT is wrong or malicious, competing OSINT is often the best way to set the record straight. And over time, researchers and investigators can build a reputation for honesty, sound analysis, and good judgment, making it easier for people to distinguish trustworthy sources of information from charlatans.

The biggest worry is that the data explosion behind open source investigations threatens the privacy of individuals as well. Data generated by phones and sold by brokers allows Bellingcat to identify Russian spies who poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year. Similar data has been used to identify a senior Catholic priest in America, who resigned last month after his location was linked to his use of Grindr, a gay dating app.

A transparent world

The privacy of individuals in the digital age is fraught with compromise. At the state and organizational level, however, OSINT promises to be a force for good. It is also unstoppable. Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the US government was able to purchase virtually any relevant commercial satellite imagery. Today, too much data is available for this to be possible.

A world where many American, European, Chinese and Russian satellite companies compete to sell images is one of assured mutual surveillance. It is a future that public companies would be wise to embrace. Tools and communities capable of digging up missile silos and unveiling spies will make the world less mysterious and a little less dangerous. Information always wants to be free and OSINT is on a mission to free him.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Le panoptique du peuple”


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