By Eli Kravinsky '24
New technologies are moving previously secret matters of statecraft and military affairs from the purview of small elite circles into the awareness of the global public. Open-source intelligence enables activists and scholars from around the world to keep governments accountable in ways previously unimaginable.
Open-source intelligence, or OSINT, is simply the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information gathered through open means, as opposed to the covert means intelligence agencies use to gather secret information. Open-source intelligence is nothing new in of itself; declassified intelligence reports in fact show a significant reliance on careful analysis of information in the public domain. What is new is that it is moving from the hands of states into the global public.
New technologies such as the geospatial revolution and social media are responsible for this sea change. In the past few years, commercial imagery satellites have widely proliferated and made tremendous leaps in quality. Cheaper and better imagery means that today’s OSINT researchers have the image collection capabilities that yesterday’s intelligence agencies had. In fact, today’s commercial satellites go beyond photographic imagery alone and can even engage in remote sensing. This means that though satellites OSINT researchers can literally see through clouds and even thin roofs, as well as gather electromagnetic data. The vast increase in smartphone use over the past decade means that OSINT researchers can pore through incredible amounts of pictures and videos, which often crucially include metadata (which can help determine where a picture or video was taken).
Bellingcat, a pioneering OSINT organization based in the Netherlands used publicly available imagery in 2015 to prove that Russia had supplied the Buk anti aircraft missile that pro-Russian separatists used to shoot down flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine. In 2020 they used publicly available flight information and phone metadate to prove that the Russians security services had poisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny. With the help of Bellingcat, Navalny was amazingly even able to impersonate a Russian security officer and convince a Russian chemical weapons specialist to unwittingly reveal the truth of the poisoning plot. Researchers have used satellite imagery to confirm the scale of China’s extrajudicial detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslim minorioties in reeducation camps in Xinjaing, and even to identify the rapid construction of hundreds of nuclear missile silos in Western China.
OSINT is already reshaping both domestic and international politics, and its future potential is even greater. As technologies mature, OSINT researchers must make inroads with activists and scholarly communities to ensure that this powerful new tool is used for good, to increase public awareness of the secret side of statecraft and to hold governments around the globe accountable for their actions. The beauty of OSINT is that it relies on the information revolution, meaning it is fundamentally decentralized. This creates global solidarity, ensures that all actors can utilize it, and reduces the ability of bad actors to rely on information suppression. While information does not in itself equal accountability, it is the first step. Today and increasingly in the future, malign actors will have to factor in higher and higher risks of being exposed by the OSINT community.