UK Organization to Harness Open Source Intelligence

June 30, 2022

Technical innovations over the last decade or so have empowered civilians with tools and information once the strict purview of government agencies. Now the war in Ukraine has prompted a new effort to harness that tech, we learn from the BBC article, “New UK Centre Will Help Fight Information War.” Those behind The Centre for Emerging Technology and Security (CETaS), based at the Alan Turing Institute, have noticed the efforts of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) enthusiasts are proving effective against Russia’s disinformation campaign (outside of Russia anyway). The new center hopes to develop and channel this expertise. Reporter Gordon Corera writes:

“US and UK governments have been active in using open-source information to be able to talk publicly about what their secret sources are indicating. But this type of information is most powerfully used by those outside government to reveal what is really happening on the ground. On the evening of 23 February, graduate students in Monterey, California, who had been using publicly available satellite imagery to watch Russian tanks on the border with Ukraine, saw Google Maps showing a traffic jam inching towards the Ukrainian border. They tweeted that a war seemed to have started, long before any official announcement.”

Since the invasion, others have used OSINT to illuminate possible war crimes and counter Russian propaganda. For several years, many have considered Russia to be ahead of the tech information game with its weaponization of social media and hacking prowess. According to a pair of anonymous UK officials, however, the balance has shifted since the war began thanks to the skilled use of OSINT resources. Imagine what could be achieved if only such efforts were focused by a dedicated organization. The article continues:

“Harnessing new technology to maintain an edge is part of the new center’s mission. This could include fields like automated recognition of military vehicles from satellite imagery or social media, allowing human experts to spend their time on trickier problems. Tools are already allowing greater translation and interpretation of foreign language material. Artificial Intelligence can also be used to reveal patterns in behavior or language that indicate the presence of an organized disinformation network on social media. Dealing with these challenges at speed is one of the ambitions for the center which aims to build a community that can keep pace with the growing amount of data and tools to exploit it.”

But will the center be able to overcome the barriers? Intelligence agencies face not only regulatory and technical restrictions on what data they can use, but also a bias against information from beyond their institutions. We wonder whether the trend toward pay-to-play OSINT resources help or hurt the cause.

Cynthia Murrell, June 30, 2022

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