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A Call to Arms: Open Source Intelligence and Evidence Based Policymaking

January 20, 2015

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Originally posted on King’s College London’s Policy Institute blog Policy Wonkers.

By Mick Endsor, Research Assistant and Dr Bill Peace, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Security Analysis.

Policymakers have access to a wealth of open source information that has yet to be incorporated into the policymaking process. As Eliot Higgins argued in a previous post on this blog, social media provides a crucial and yet untapped source of evidence which can underpin effective policymaking in relation to conflict zones. We wholeheartedly agree with this – indeed, it can be taken much further. Policymaking based on information that has been acquired through open source intelligence techniques can provide a template for decision-making based on rigorous evidence and a verifiable methodology. In the business world, for example, OSINT is now common analytical practice. But as yet, it has not gained anything like the same kind of traction in the policy sphere, and there is a genuine lack of evidence-based policymaking based on open source intelligence.

From our perspective, this is a worrying state of affairs. There is a powerful case for incorporating OSINT approaches to evidence-based policymaking. In the first place, evidence produced by OSINT methods can be both robust and rigorous, not least because it can be underpinned by extensive datasets. And in the second, it has the potential to be both transparent and verifiable; all open source evidence is, by definition, based on data that is publicly (and often freely) available.

A powerful case indeed, then – so why is open source evidence rarely used to inform policymaking? At the heart of the problem is the fact that OSINT approaches are still relatively ‘young’ and, all too often in our experience, lack the rigour and reliability needed to underpin effective policymaking.

For us then, we need a call to arms – or, more accurately, three calls to arms. First, those who specialise in OSINT need to develop a much stronger, more reliable set of approaches for collecting open source data and, perhaps more importantly, for analysing that data. All too often, analyses rest on a set of assumptions that remain untested. One of the most obvious and frequent of these assumptions is that Twitter and other online populations are representative of wider public opinion and that software can accurately assess the sentiment of these populations. We should critically challenge such assumptions as Nick Halstead, CTO of DataSift, a provider of sentiment analysis software, did when he bluntly stated that any company that claims they can achieve better than 70% accuracy in tracking sentiment is ‘lying’. It is also imperative that we address the real issue of the availability and reliability of information, particularly as organisations are often reluctant to share that information with researchers and academics. This is a policy issue in its own right that could be addressed by developing public-private-academic partnerships, and by broadening the evidence base for policymaking through open data initiatives.

In the second place, those who champion open source intelligence approaches must communicate the advantages of those approaches. Compelling arguments can be, but aren’t, made and as it stands, policymakers lack a real understanding of the potential for OSINT to inform policymaking. To overcome this challenge we need to be far more proactive not only in establishing more effective partnerships and information-sharing practices, but also engaging with policymakers to highlight the policy-relevant benefits of open source research and analysis. OSINT has real potential to add significant value to policy debates: it has the power to identify knowledge gaps, analyse the efficacy of existing policies and, to stress our key point again, to provide new, rigorous evidence bases to support the development of effective policy.

The third point is that policymakers need to be receptive to the enormous advantages that OSINT as an evidence base for policymaking can provide. The big data phenomenon has filtered through to OSINT and opened up new, and as yet underused, avenues of research. As open source approaches become more rigorous, and researchers become better at communicating their applicability to the major policy issues of the day, policymakers should capitalise on this opportunity to improve – significantly – the quality of policymaking.

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  1. Mikhail

    Is it true that Russia is manufacturing drone swarms that could be released in such numbers like swarms of locusts to cause mayhem on the battle field? Is this one of their secret tech strategies to overcome field radar equipment? Can you imagine the air filled with tiny metallic insects like flies but each carrying a sting in its tail for the unprotected parts of the human body? A call to arms, LOL. get out the repellent.

  2. Robert David Steele

    Nice cry from the heart — 25 years after I said the same thing, and with zero respect for all prior efforts by thousands of others. Lacking integrity, are we?

  3. Mikhail

    Robert David Steele – I would like to understand the meaning of your reply, if you were the first publish this info 25 years ago I will concede that you should have been credited with that. Please supply your original academic work. What referencing system would you like me to use? Harvard?

  4. Mikhail

    Robert David Steele- I have just had a look at your impressive website. In the above question I asked if it were true without citing a source. So I will ask again, is it true?
    If so, why has this technology never been used before? Then again perhaps it has been used. Your own sources were perhaps with the CIA, are you prepared to reveal it to the public?

    • Robert David Steele

      See this specific post at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog:

      OSINT Literature Review, Name Association, Lessons Learned

      All flaws lead back to a loss of integrity. The secret world refuses to be serious about OSINT because it would cut their budget by two thirds; policy makers refuse to be serious about OSINT because it would reveal their corruption and their treason — religious, financial, and ideological. Academics refuse to be serious about citing the pioneers such as those who appear in the above post (I sponsored over 800 speaker-practitioners) because they are a) lazy and b) afraid of offending their secret intelligence sponsors who give them minor access and small financial payments; and finally the media refuses to be serious about OSINT because the media model is build on lies and advertising, not serious investigative journalism (and I include the progressive press in the USA, largely worthless because of its commitment to the Democratic Party, the weaker of the two wings in the two-party tyranny.

      Now ask yourself: before this article was written, did you bother to do any research at all on who has published before? The answer is self evident. No offense, but that is what has to change.

  5. Robert David Steele

    New article today at VICE that cites BellingCat:

    Spy Agencies Are Like Old-School Porn — But That’s Changing

  6. boggled

    No offense to Mr. Steele or Bellingcat.
    For my limited viewpoint, it appears that the Intelligence gathering community may have looked back into the establishing computer market and saw the potential.
    However they judged at that time, there was too little of it and because of that, much of it could be subject to misinformation campaigns and you would have to send collect informants anyways to provide corroboration.
    So for this with a controlled budget, you make the decision that too little gain for something you are already doing.
    Add to that the off chance that people like Snowden, or other more political analysts might put in their own spin on things to control policy makers.

    As open source has evolved, and the supply of information has grown, and budgets have grown those policies are evolving slowly.
    And it makes it a more viable source of info.
    With the Arizona complex of NSA and the large amount of analysts employed, it looks like they take seriously this added avenue of approach to gather and analyzing datasets.
    Where to apply their approach though is a tricky one when it gets into invasion of privacy and airing people’s dirty laundry.

    The good thing is this should become a tool for the public to keep tabs on its governments and a tool various groups can and many do use when it comes to proving other evidence collected.

    So long story short, I think some of the intelligence community are using these various tools as a verification tool.
    The point is where the pivot or fulcrum point in the teeter totter is placed.
    Which has the most weight given to it?
    Boots on the ground that use this type of intelligence gathering to support their reports, which I think many did. but is becoming more accepted.
    OR a OSINT intelligence branch that is solely based on this to gather an provide evidence and analysis.

    The biggest problem this type of intelligence has, is the integrity of the analysts and software writers and their ability to ‘twist’ evidence they come across and its analysis.
    One person may give one piece of data validity while another would label it as misinformation, and then their theories branch out from there.
    That piece of data could make or break a theory.
    Do not get me wrong, I think it is an evolving thing and a good thing for the intelligence community to invest in.
    If people put it out there, then it should be held under a microscope.
    In that way it is similar to statements a politician puts out for the ‘news’ channels.
    They can come back to haunt you or give you validity.

    If Mr. Steele mentioned 25 years ago in an open source conference, along with his factual and credit worthy speech, that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Martha Washington while wearing a Bigfoot watch by doing a OSINT investigation, should that additional evidence be brought into play when discussing the merits of his OSINT speech?

    That does point a little to what Mr.Steel mentions in his latest comment.
    We are human and all of us have some type of skeleton in our closets.
    We are not automatons.

    I think it has a role to play and in the future it will gain ground in that role.
    However, still a more reliable source of info is an agent on the ground with his or her life on the line collecting and sifting through the data they collect.
    OSINT is a valuable tool in addition to that and to confirm that and worthwhile investing in considering today’s information society.

    No one expected cameras in public places, like toll booths and light poles and buildings, would overcome their hurdles, but they did and are accepted by society at large, or the TSA scanning at airports, but it has.

    OSINT probably will become a reality if it can overcome the integrity and morality problem of the analysts and software engineers.
    Something that is installed naturally in the current agents that have their life on the line collecting a similar level of information.

    Fare thee well

    • Robert Steele

      No offense, but this comment is both incoherent and devoid of any understanding of how the intelligence cycle is broken up into segments. Today all the money is being spent on collection, and none to speak of on processing, analysis, or public education. Less than 1% of what is collected is processed. The focus is on spending money, not on acquiring, processing, analyzing, and exploiting intelligence. Should anyone wish to actually understand the craft of intelligence, and the degree to which decision-support done properly (holistic analytics, true cost economics, and open source everything engineering) can create a prosperous world at peace, a world that works for all, one starting point is the material from 800 world-class speaker practitioners who have been ignored by academic and the policy world because their truths are not just inconvenient, they are directly threatening to the military-industrial and other complexes and the profits of the 1%.

      VICE came out with an article yesterday that compares the secret world to the aging porn industry, stuck in 1979 while the world passes it by. That article, and the 13 pages of information I provided to the author in answer to specific questions, can be found at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog by searching for Mongoose VICE Spy.

      The conclusion I came to after Tom Steyer said publicly that all his millions had accomplished nothing on climate change is that intelligence reform is a sub-set of a larger challenge, and that electoral reform — restoring the sovereignty of the public and demanding an honest government — must come first.

    • boggled

      And one thing I could add to that with the troll factories and the way the Kremlin propaganda has influenced media and to raise their army of brainwashed Russians, one has to wonder, how that could and would act on OSINT, i.e the source of the data being corrupt in nature.
      It would take only one credible source to make a statement based on false data that might throw off a whole investigation.

      It is not that I am against OSINT as a viable tool, but there must be an understanding of its limitations as well.

      Fare thee well

      • Robert Steele

        I agree. The problem with the treatment of OSINT as technical collection challenge is precisely as you have identified — it is too easy for a legion of fake artists to paint a picture that ignorant American machines and “butts in seats” will accept as real. OSINT is human — indigenous observers with eyes on the target and subject matter experts with decades of knowledge such that the “feeling in the fingertips” is there. OSINT done right is the world brain — applied collective intelligence. Not something porn stars (secret intelligence) know anything about.


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