Open source intelligence, or OSINT, has existed as a concept for decades, but is enjoying a resurgence in corporate and public interest. The federal government, and the intelligence community in particular, have leveraged the use of OSINT for a myriad of purposes for years and the private sector is adopting its use at a rapid pace.
Open source intelligence is a term used to refer to data or information that is overtly (rather than covertly) gathered from publicly available sources and used in an Intelligence context. Publicly available information can be anything from academic journals to social media posts. So long as information is freely available to the public, obtained in a legal and ethical manner, and used in an intelligence context, it can be considered OSINT.
For example, if a government agency or private company is working to compile a study on where, when and how citizens are most likely to vote, then they can leverage all of the information provided by academic journals, newspapers/news webpages, blogs and social media posts. All of the data gathered by these sources would be considered open source intelligence, as it was information gleaned from a publicly available source for intelligence purposes.
One of the most difficult problems OSINT researchers and analysts must contend with is directly related to a dire issue plaguing mainstream media operations: fake news. Just as individuals have difficulty distinguishing real, factual news from fake, sensationalist news, it can be difficult to determine the factual value of information gathered through OSINT methods. However, because OSINT operations tend to be far more specific in their scope of research than mainstream media, discerning the accuracy of the information presented can be done far more efficiently. It just requires diligence and verification.
The exponential proliferation of data is another challenge for OSINT practitioners. It is estimated that 2.5 exabytes (an exabyte is one billion gigabytes) of data are produced every day — and that is predicted to grow by approximately 40 percent each year, doubling in size every two years. By 2020, the data we create and copy will reach 44 zettabytes, or 44 trillion gigabytes. All of this data is a wealth of intelligence just waiting to be put to good use, but drilling through it takes vast amounts of time and resources. The government, which already has strained manpower and resources, is struggling to sift through all the data.
What this indicates is that there is an opportunity for the private sector to make a profound impact on how the government collects, parses and utilizes open source information. The crushing amounts of data, both factual and false, will soon become impossible for the government to manage on its own and the companies that work with the federal government will likely find themselves in a prime position to provide assistance.
The private sector can address OSINT difficulties faced by the government through clever coding and software tools, providing more manpower for media monitoring and verification, and by providing training. Just as OSINT can come from a variety of disparate sources, so too can it be gathered in a myriad of methods. The government will also need reliable ways of securing all the collected data, underscored clearly by recent leaks. The private sector will also be able to provide cybersecurity measures to protect the OSINT data collected by the government.
The private sector could also benefit greatly by adopting OSINT gathering techniques. OSINT has the potential to be incredibly versatile, as it is not inherently limited to a specific field of information and can be applied to all branches of industry. It can be used as a situational awareness tool, a competitive intelligence tool, and as a means to track and analyze industry trends. OSINT is an incredibly powerful tool which, if leveraged properly, can allow for greater industry knowledge, stronger competitive and situational awareness and provide additional opportunities for organizational growth. And most importantly: the information is free.
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