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Intelligence in the Age of Social Media

12.03.2023
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According to Eric Mandel and Sarit Zehavi

When most people hear the word "intelligence" in a political context, they immediately think of secret sources, spies, and secret meetings. Intelligence services continue to rely on operational information (HUMINT) and intercepted messages (SIGINT). However, in the twenty-first century, Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) has become indispensable for understanding your adversaries and is often the primary and most valuable source of actionable intelligence information. According to a detailed article highlighting the capabilities of OSINT in the Wall Street Journal, "80% of what a US president or military commander needs to know comes from OSINT."

OSINT is the painstaking collection and analysis of information from a wide range of open sources for the military, intelligence, police and business communities. The explosion of social media - from live video to blogs, chats, Twitter and Facebook - has created unprecedented opportunities to understand areas and people where HUMINT and SIGINT are not as effective or cost too much. In addition, the analysis of hidden intelligence information is refined, and sometimes significantly modified, using OSINT.

Thus, the combination of OSINT, HUMINT, VISINT (visual intelligence) and SIGINT allows the country's national and diplomatic security apparatus to act proactively to stop threats, inform allies, negotiate from a position of strength, etc.

The importance of OSINT is gaining increasing recognition, especially in US intelligence circles. The aforementioned Wall Street Journal article quotes Robert Cardillo, a senior intelligence expert, as noting that he "would rely less on traditional analytical briefings and more on open source products, which tend to be cheaper and more readily available." Practically in response to this challenge, former senior U.S. intelligence experts, including the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a retired Army Major General who commanded the Army Intelligence Center, and the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, formed the OSINT Foundation, which is "focused on using OSINT in the intelligence community to answer questions from national leadership.”

The OSINT value is not lost for US adversaries either. Take China: According to Georgetown University's William Hannas, in Beijing, "approximately 100,000 analysts study scientific and technological developments around the world" through open sources. Even in closed societies, the exponential growth of social media has given opposition forces the tools to share information with the outside world. After all, it was the Iranian opposition that first exposed Iran's advanced nuclear program.

But it is perhaps in the private sphere that the effects of OSINT are felt most, as private intelligence companies can out-compete government intelligence agencies in collecting operational intelligence. Take Alma, an Israeli research and education think tank, for example, whose CEO is one of the authors of this article. The organization is studying Syria, Iraq and Iran, relying almost entirely on OSINT. His reports and analysis are used by major media outlets, politicians and security agencies to gain credible information about threats posed by Hezbollah in Lebanon and other Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq. Special reports and analysis conducted by the center have collected information on a wide range of issues, including the proliferation of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Hezbollah's drug business in Syria, the strengthening of Iran's position in southern Damascus, the growing presence of Hamas in Lebanon, Iranian arms smuggling at airports Beirut and Damascus, the deployment of Russian troops in Syria, etc. Hezbollah was so concerned about the accuracy of Alma's reports that it threatened the organization by posting its GPS coordinates as a warning.

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