OSINT: As Good as Government Intel

November 16, 2021

It is truly amazing how much information private citizens in the OSINT community can now glean from publicly available data. As The Economist puts it, “Open-Source Intelligence Challenges State Monopolies on Information.” Complete with intriguing examples, the extensive article details the growth of technologies and networks that have drastically changed the intelligence-gathering game over the last decade. We learn of Geo4Nonpro, a project of the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation

Studies (CNS) at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. The write-up reports:

“The CNS is a leader in gathering and analyzing open-source intelligence (OSINT). It has pulled off some dramatic coups with satellite pictures, including on one occasion actually catching the launch of a North Korean missile in an image provided by Planet, a company in San Francisco. Satellite data, though, is only one of the resources feeding a veritable boom in non-state OSINT. There are websites which track all sorts of useful goings-on, including the routes taken by aircraft and ships. There are vast searchable databases. Terabytes of footage from phones are uploaded to social-media sites every day, much of it handily tagged. … And it is not just the data. There are also tools and techniques for working with them—3D modeling packages, for example, which let you work out what sort of object might be throwing the shadow you see in a picture. And there are social media and institutional settings that let this be done collaboratively. Eclectic expertise and experience can easily be leveraged with less-well-versed enthusiasm and curiosity in the service of projects which link academics, activists, journalists and people who mix the attributes of all three groups.”

We recommend reading the whole article for more about those who make a hobby of painstakingly analyzing images and footage. Some of these projects have come to startling conclusions. Government intelligence agencies are understandably wary as capabilities that used to be their purview spread among private OSINT enthusiasts. Not so wary, though, that they will not utilize the results when they prove useful. In fact, the government is a big customer of companies that supply higher-resolution satellite images than one can pull from the Web for free—outfits like American satellite maker Maxar and European aerospace firm Airbus. The article is eye-opening, and we can only wonder what the long-term results of this phenomenon will be.

Cynthia Murrell November 16, 2021


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