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Covert or overt? How Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is Re-shaping the Intelligence Space

Angela Suriyasenee | Cyber & Technology Fellow

Picture the surprise of the CIA, arguably the most sophisticated entity in global intelligence, when they learned that the location of two US underground military bases had been compromised, not by a hostile state actor or a terrorist group, but a 20-year-old student who stumbled across the coordinates on their fitness-tracking app, Strava.

In 2018 ANU student Nathan Ruser inadvertently discovered the two US bases in Djibouti and Syria, via Strava’s location-tracking feature. These bases “lit up” on the app’s heat-mapping function from personnel who tracked their daily drills around the facilities. This occurred within a single day and without the involvement of any official intelligence agency.

Today, the Ukrainian invasion highlights how OSINT has disrupted the intelligence world. We now have the astounding ability to follow the invasion of a nation in real time, down to the everyday experiences of armed forces and civilians. University students have been able to use data from commercial satellite imaging, and social media networks such as TikTok and Twitter, to track and confirm Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine. Google traffic data and social media have cut through the obscurity of war, exposing Russian troop and munitions mobilisation and providing a wealth of tactical information for Ukraine and its supporters.

Lifting the veil of secrecy The idea that secret information holds greater value continues to prevail among professional communities, and the reluctance to recognize the worth of OSINT generally arises from an a priori attitude that intelligence can only be obtained from covert sources. However, perspectives are shifting as advancements in biometric identification, facial recognition, and border control measures have made it increasingly clear that relying solely on secrecy for intelligence gathering is restrictive and often unfeasible in the modern age. Consulting open-sources could therefore optimise intelligence gathering and reduce demands on resources.

What is Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)?

OSINT encompasses all accessible and publicly available information. However, OSINT is not new. It has been used for hundreds of years in civilian support during conflicts. Its resurgence and growth over recent decades is due to the private and volunteering sectors as well as modern technology. Thanks to the ubiquity of our technological advances, citizens are leveraging such tools and challenging states’ traditional and exclusive monopoly over intelligence gathering.

With 6.6 billion smartphones used worldwide, 84% of the global population are potential intelligence collectors. The data available is exponentially growing and doubling every two years. Dr. Amy Zegart, US Intelligence and Emerging Technologies expert explains that “we used to think of intelligence as finding needles in haystacks. Now the haystacks are providing insights too.” The ability to filter and configure this vast amount of information has become a valuable asset across all sectors. It's no wonder that Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) has reshaped the intelligence landscape.

Opportunities & Risks

OSINT undoubtedly offers tangible benefits. The technological expertise required to obtain OSINT is minimal and the information procurable is cost-effective, easily accessible, and linguistically diverse. Employing OSINT not only allows state-actors to understand the strategies and behaviours of other states but also public perceptions and opinions.

OSINT provides a less invasive way of obtaining large quantities of intelligence that can be rapidly collected and analysed. Used correctly, OSINT can free up time for human analysts. Retired CIA OSINT officer, Stephen Mercado, argues that OSINT often matches or eclipses the use of classified information when monitoring and analysing security threats like terrorism, proliferation, and counterintelligence. In addition to democratising intelligence and expanding accessibility to wider talent acquisition, this safer remote model reduces exposure to threats from hostile adversaries.

On the other hand, OSINT intelligence gatherers range from amateurs to experts, leading to concerns about the potential for human error and the time needed to verify information. The “discovery” by Georgetown University of China’s underground nuclear weapons arsenal exemplifies this issue. There is a valid concern that analytical miscalculations can quickly spiral out of control or go viral, and misinformation can be harmful to public perceptions and beliefs. However, it's important to note that the immediacy of OSINT does not necessitate instant reactions.

Furthermore, there are views that OSINT’s transparency can complicate crisis management and conflict resolution, where secrecy is seen to assist negotiations, de-escalation and valuable face-saving exits. Although, this undoubtedly leans into the argument that governments and private actors should have the right to obscure important information from the public.

Countermeasures by potential adversaries, such as deliberate deception and disinformation campaigns have also been raised as possible threats due to OSINT’s reliance on the open-source ecosystem. Human error and the injection of disinformation are ever-present risks that can be challenging to track, and pose implications for counterstrategies, though these are not risks that exist exclusively in the world of OSINT.

OSINT has disrupted intelligence gathering in unprecedented ways. The audience for intelligence gathering is changing and so too have perceptions around overt and covert intelligence collection. The spectrum of stakeholders has expanded and there is a growing desire of citizens to be better informed. This shift is disrupting the long-standing norms of state secrecy and the traditional world of intelligence.

As with most emerging technological tools, there are risks and opportunities to consider, especially in the realm of politics and security. Being mindful of these factors and exercising attention to detail and restraint can make OSINT an invaluable collaborative tool in supplementing gaps in traditional intelligence in various capacities.

OSINT is creating new opportunities for people to contribute critical insights to their leaders and decision-makers. Concealment and implausible deniability will become increasingly difficult, and in a world of ever-increasing information, OSINT could one day prevent future conflicts from taking place.

Angela Suriyasenee is the Cyber & Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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