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Evolution of Intel: How Valuable is OSINT?

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By Dr. Brett Miller
Faculty Member, Intelligence Studies, at American Military University

I once heard the post-9/11 era referred to as the “golden age of SIGINT.” SIGINT, shorthand for signals intelligence, is a form of intelligence gathering that involves the collection of signals. The reference to its golden age is based on the communications explosion that occurred after the turn of the millennium coupled with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which enabled SIGINT to provide enhanced quality and value to the intelligence community (IC).OSINT open source intelligence

SIGINT is not a new capability and has played a large part in all military conflicts and actions since World War II. Despite its widespread use, SIGINT was often perceived by the IC as being less valuable than human intelligence (HUMINT). However, the years following 9/11 brought a major change to the extent that SIGINT was used by the IC. SIGINT is now perceived as being the premier intelligence capability, overtaking HUMINT as the intelligence of choice for military leaders national decision makers.

Should OSINT be Considered Intelligence?

Today, we are seeing another, similar explosion with a new form of intel gathering: open-source intelligence (OSINT). This shift is caused by the massive amount of readily available information via Internet-based outlets worldwide.

However, many IC professionals do not consider OSINT to be a true intelligence discipline. After all, many argue, the information gathered is readily obtained through unclassified sources regardless of the domain. I would argue that, not only is OSINT a vital aspect of the intelligence apparatus, it is a force multiplier.

OSINT started gaining momentum with the shift to 24/7 news cycle (think CNN) and the availability of nearly all forms of content on the Internet. In addition to magazines, newspapers, radio, and other forms of media becoming available online, there was also an explosion of new forms of content including social networking sites, wikis, blogs, and video-sharing sites. All of this content is easily accessible, readily available, and offers the IC a rich source of information.

Challenges of OSINT

Of course, there are significant challenges with having so much information available. As outlined by Mark Lowenthal in his book, Intelligence: From Policy to Secrets:

The main disadvantage of OSINT is the sheer volume of information that is available and trying to make sense of that information.”

The amount of information can be tempered by focusing on the intelligence requirements or the needs of politicians and commanders. Without such focus, much of the information available ends up being noise and brings no value to the intelligence picture.

The use of OSINT helps address gaps and enhance the intelligence picture where traditional INTs have not provided a comprehensive picture. This enables OSINT to be a force multiplier and contribute significant value to the intelligence arena.

Read the full article at In Public Safety.

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