Intel community seeks to centralize OSINT under new strategy

The intelligence community's new OSINT strategy puts a premium on using open-source data, as opposed to highly secretive sources and and methods.

With social media feeds and data brokers awash in valuable intel, leaders of the top U.S. intelligence agencies have signed onto a plan to centralize open source intelligence (OSINT).

The new OSINT strategy, signed out by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns last month, aims to make open-source an “the INT of first resort.” Those words, in the title of the strategy, are a tacit recognition that spy agencies have traditionally favored gaining intelligence from highly secretive sources — such as human intelligence, spy satellites, and electronic signals — rather than open-source data.

OSINT isn’t new. Spy agencies have been gathering newspaper clips and other public materials for as long as they’ve been in existence.

But Jason Barrett, the OSINT executive at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the IC is reaching an “inflection point.” The strategy acknowledges the explosion of public and commercial data available over the internet, as well as the ability to organize and analyze that information using technology like AI.

“Ultimately, we are hearing more and more from our colleagues, from different parts of the national intelligence enterprise, whether it’s different IC elements or different national intelligence managers, about the need for more information in this space,” Barrett said on Inside the IC.

Intelligence community officials have been considering the place of OSINT for several years, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Officials have acknowledged the value of OSINT, while struggling to standardize open source tradecraft across agencies.

In addition to making OSINT a primary source, one of the major goals of the new strategy is coordinating the acquisition and sharing of open source data. It calls for establishing a “a centralized, multi-domain data catalog to enhance transparency” for both publicly available information and commercially available data.

“All members of the IC should be able to discover IC-acquired open source data and community OSINT reporting, while adhering to security and classification requirements,” the document states.

Some organizations within intelligence agencies have focused more on OSINT in recent years. But Barrett acknowledged those efforts have been mostly disparate and uncoordinated.

“The problem is that it has been disaggregated. It’s been ad hoc, and it is been decentralized to the point of being difficult to manage,” Barrett said.

CIA OSINT efforts

One of the major focal points for OSINT has been the CIA’s open source enterprise. Randy Nixon, the director of the OSE, said the organization hosts a lot of the IC’s open source data, as well as the unclassified IT infrastructure and technology used across the intelligence community.

“This strategy makes sure that we all stay on task, and that we don’t fall into the trap of only thinking about our own agency,” Nixon said. “We remain focused on what we’re doing as a shared community.”

And he highlighted how in the past, multiple IC agencies may have been purchasing the same open-source data sets due to a lack of coordination.

“We have to make sure we have the right tradecraft in our contracts, where we purchase once, share across the entire community,” Nixon said.

Nixon also chairs the National Open Source Committee, an IC-panel that will oversee much of the strategy’s implementation. He said the technology and tradecraft subcommittee is working to expand a shared internal website for OSINT tradecraft notes and best practices. And the management subcommittee plans to release quarterly highlights of newly available OSINT data.

Meanwhile, the open source committee is also working to document technology gaps for harnessing OSINT. Officials believe the use of AI and machine learning will be crucial to harness open-source data. They say those tools will be easier to adopt on unclassified networks used to host open-source data, as opposed to more restrictive classified networks.

“I think the combination of tools and capabilities that our leading edge OSINT practitioners are developing is going to not just serve them, but it’s going to truly benefit the entire IC in ways that are hard for some people to really imagine right now,” Barrett said.

ODNI is also close to releasing a framework for obtaining commercially available information. That follows concerns about the IC’s purchase of commercial datasets that sometimes includes information about Americans.

The governance framework will lay out how the IC will “access, acquire and oversee commercially available information, and it covers privacy rights, it covers legal analysis, it covers a number of different components,” Barrett said.

“So it is critical to us to get this right,” he continued. “So that we can build trust with the American people and with others. We feel like the work that we’re doing in the open source intelligence space has a huge amount of potential there to build that trust further, because we can be more transparent in the work that we’re doing. It can help drive relationships and not just in providing decision advantage, but in supporting diplomacy efforts and partnering more with industry.”


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