Noah Shachtman of Wired’s Danger Room has a few insights from an Open-Source Intel (OSINT) contractor:
“Open source” intelligence – material taken from newspapers, Internet postings, and TV shows – is starting to play a major role in the nation’s spy agencies. But it’s still got a ton of problems, says one contractor working in the “OSINT” field. He offers his thoughts on how Open Source can be upgraded.
Well worth a read. From an organizational perspective, I was mildly surprised to see some traditional bureaucratic problems: “brain drain”, training, standards of practice. OSINT, while shiny and new, faces the same challenges organizations have been working with for decades. It will be interesting to see whether some of the best practices of high-performing teams and organizations make it into the OSINT field. My suspicion is that the transplant may not take due to some inherent and persistent problems in the bureaucracy. I’d like to be proven wrong on that.
My interest in OSINT springs from some work and writing in the reform of intel organizations and the role of extra-organizational mass collaboration, or “crowdsourcing”. A distinction I would like to see reflected more clearly in OSINT discussions is between open-source collection, which fits the definition above and gets most of the attention, and open-source analysis, which involves crowdsourced processing of the collection inputs. This excerpt from a draft of an article I’ve been working on addresses the significant obstacles to embracing open-source analysis as a complement to the IC’s bureaucracies:
This is the open-source paradox: despite the traditional obscurantist models of keeping and unearthing secrets, the plummeting transaction costs of mass collaboration are translating into a mode of intelligence that hides in plain sight. Without security clearances, dedicated satellites, wiretapping, or travel budgets, a loose collective is crowdsourcing the collection and analysis of publicly available information sources to create estimates that complement and compete with the products of the Intelligence Community (IC) and its global counterparts.
Yet the well-intentioned efforts of the IC are attempts to structure, control, and hide open-source intel. The IC appears to be trying to impose the values and norms of a bureaucratic culture onto an extra-organizational mass collaboration, reinforcing modes of thought that open-source intel promises to broaden. Aside from the certain resistance of mass collaborators to imposed control, attempts to engage with open-source intel, if successful, would work to diminish its value.
This isn’t a problem for the communities of mass collaboration, though; they neither wait for permission nor take their lead from the IC. The collective is amorphous, autonomous, and quirky. Its membership changes, but its contribution is very much on its own terms. Communities of mass collaboration in open-source intel are moving far faster than the IC’s ability to understand, engage, or control them.
Open-source intel is becoming a fact of foreign affairs whether acknowledged or not. It is currently playing at the edges of the organizations traditionally responsible for the craft of intelligence. Understood for its strengths and weaknesses, this “wisdom of the crowd” could become a complementary input to the President’s Daily Briefing, National Intelligence Estimates, and a broad spectrum of foreign policy instruments. It could also make cheap mistakes in the lieu of the IC making expensive ones.
By the way, this is the second time I have linked to Danger Room this week on the topic of OSINT. If this is a topic of interest for you, their posts are among the most thoughtful pieces available on the subject.