Open Source Information: Info Ops’ Untapped Weapon

By Carmen Landa Middleton

Carmen Landa Middleton is the former deputy executive director of the CIA. During her CIA career, Middleton served in a variety of senior positions, including the director of the Open Source Center and the chief diversity officer, during which she served as a co-chair on the historic major study, Director’s Advisory Group on Women in Leadership, and oversaw the launch of an agency-wide anti-harassment program, with a special emphasis on sexual harassment. She is the founder & president of Common Table Consulting and Advisory Board member of Veretus Group.

There has been growing discussion about the importance of open source information – both in terms of the power and potential of creating and disseminating news and narratives worldwide, whether genuine or fake, and for the pressing need to evolve the open source intelligence (OSINT) discipline.

“Devaluing OSINT has become a more significant problem as Russia and China use social media as an arena to wage disinformation operations,” wrote Dana Priest, commenting in the New Yorker about the Russian meddling in the U.S election.

Europe has been sensitized not only to the speed by which information, including disinformation, can be conveyed to its citizenry, but also to the power of such messaging to create confusion, mistrust and even a distortion of attitudes and actions.

In response to this threat, Denmark announced in July that it had begun to train its troops, designated for deployment in Estonia, in combating disinformation. And on Nov. 13, the European Commission launched a public consultation on fake news and online disinformation and set up a High-Level Expert Group representing academics, online platforms, news media and civil society organizations.

The open source landscape continues to evolve at a head-spinning pace, and this dynamic evolution is challenging, in earnest, long-held perceptions of what practitioners fondly refer to as the “’INT’ of first resort.”

“I don’t think it has had its heyday,” Jason Matheny, director of IARPA, recently told The Cipher Brief about the state of open source intelligence. “We don’t invest very much in open source intelligence compared to classified sources of intelligence as the intelligence community.”

As a former director of the Open Source Center, now the Open Source Enterprise, I cannot agree more with this statement. Over the course of its 76-year history, the U.S. government’s OSINT venture has experienced all-too-fleeting moments of high-level attention and committed investment only to fall back into longer periods of disinterest and flattened or reduced budgets.

My experience, both as a long-time practitioner of the open source discipline and as a former leader of the CIA branch responsible for it, is that there are two stubborn myths that continue to impede the true unleashing of OSINT’s power and potential. First, that open source is “cheap.” And second, that anyone with little more than a good internet connection can be an open source practitioner.

Regarding the first myth, it is true that historically OSINT has not been as expensive as other forms of intelligence, especially in the early days of the discipline, when the pound-for-pound price of a foreign language journal translation was laughable compared to an overhead satellite system, for example. The tools needed in 1950 were newspaper subscriptions, short-wave radios, teletype machines, pencils and typewriters. Today, a combination of sophisticated technology and cutting-edge strategies to mine the ever-evolving open source environment is required for practitioners to undertake the most basic of tasks.

Regarding the second myth, there is a low-barrier to entry into the practice of OSINT that has led to the perception that a cohort of smart people with access to key news feeds and online resources could replicate the depth and breadth of what is needed for strategic advantage in today’s world. Ask any of the former open source directors if they have experienced the unintended consequences of promoting OSINT as the cheap and easy intelligence solution, both in terms of the investment dollars and – more importantly – the value that other intelligence practitioners and leaders place upon OSINT.

The organizational iterations of the CIA’s current Open Source Enterprise have consistently applied deep cultural expertise, near-to-native- and native-level foreign language skills, and a thrilling understanding of the complexity and diversity of the open source environment to the intelligence questions of their day. The open source environment has clearly emerged as one of the most dynamic of intelligence “battlefields.”

With the development of big data applications and solutions, the growing cadre of experienced data scientists and the technical advancements in machine translation, the time is ripe for OSINT practitioners to push the boundaries of their tradecraft in two critical ways. First, they must continue to nurture the most fundamental element of the discipline: remaining current on the open source landscape. As straightforward as this appears, capable OSINT practitioners apply their experience, expertise and savvy in identifying and understanding the most influential and emerging sources and voices – from controlled-media sources to foreign “citizen journalists” tweeting about unusual activity in their neighborhoods.

Second, OSINT practitioners across the board need to acquire skills in data science, information technology and other technical developments in the open source environment, on top of sustaining their traditional cultural, foreign language and media expertise.

Open source professionals have experienced unrelenting change in the open source environment, particularly since the explosion of the web in the late 1990s. For OSINT to (finally) come into its own, as so many have predicted over the last seven decades, concerted and sustained investment is needed – and it won’t be cheap.