IC embraces open source intel, even if it is double-edged

The democratization of technology has been both a benefit and a bother to the intelligence community.  Outlets such as social media have provided intelligence officials with a readily available database to analyze – even adopting the wider use of open source intelligence – but it also has proved to be a handy tool for terrorists.

This was the notion expressed by several officials at the Kalaris Intelligence Conference on Thursday.

According to Jason Matheny, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, open sourcing is good for the types of events that the Intelligence Community does not look at in terms of typical or traditional military adversaries. “Disease is a national security threat that in some ways [that] has even outpaced war in the number of casualties … we have to use non-traditional open source data to detect disease outbreak,” he said, adding that running queries on Internet searches of symptoms is a great way to start.

In fact, IARPA’s Open Source Indicators program seeks to develop methods for automated and continuous analysis of publically available data. 

While open source intelligence used to be overlooked in the IC, there has been a renewed effort to harness its capabilities. “We refer to open source intelligence as the INT of first resort,” Harry Coker Jr., chair of the National Open Source Committee, said, using the government jargon for intelligence. 

The availability of open source information is a double-edged sword, however. Terrorist groups such as ISIS have turned to social media to disseminate propaganda to a global audience at a relatively low cost.  Additionally, social media provides a perfect outlet for these groups to recruit new members. On the other hand, intelligence agencies can leverage certain metrics and patterns of such individuals to gain greater insight into operations, strength, operational capacity and capability, and overall reach.

“Although the volume of material created challenges in approaching this material systematically, the data analysis provided a number of clear insights. Most prominently, a significant number of accounts provided reliable GPS coordinates in ISIS territories,” a report published by the Brookings Institution titled “The ISIS Twitter Census" stated. “A subsequent data collection in late December 2014 detected even more relevant GPS coordinate data in Iraq and Syria, even as ISIS was warning its members against the practice.” 

Malicious actors have also turned to the virtual world in crowdfunding operations. “In 2013, we saw actually, probably, the most masterful, and some have said the greatest, largest crowdsourcing ever by criminals,” Georgetown University professor Catherine Lotrionte said at the intelligence conference, describing how hackers targeted credit card companies in India and the United Arab Emirates to crowdfund their operations. They gained $45 million in 10 hours by conducting 36,000 ATM transactions with the stolen information.

While crowdsourcing and open source intelligence can be useful, it does have limits. For one, a crowd is needed, and in places such as Syria, this can be problematic, Gary Dunow, director of Analysis/Analytic Capabilities Portfolio Manager at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said. And misinformation can also be dangerous. Information in the social media and public sphere can shape rather than inform conversations.

The growing volunteer geographic information community – people contributing and saying where things are in the world or what is happening where – hold great potential for the IC going forward.  “In order for us to take advantage of that, we need to move away from our closed intelligence architecture and move into the open world,” Dunow said. 

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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