Back in 1947 Allen Dulles said that 80% of intelligence questions could be answered from open sources. As Dulles later became the Director of the CIA it is a given he had more than a passing knowledge of intelligence. The open sources he was talking about were primarily foreign newspaper reports and radio broadcasts. What would Dulles have made of open source in the information age? He would probably have thought he had struck gold. However as many a gold prospector knows to his cost for all the gold dust you find there is an awful lot of fools’ gold to get through first. In Dulles’s day open sources were relatively easy to evaluate. You generally knew who had written what and why. Armed with this, and a bit of logic, detecting misinformation was not so difficult. In the ungoverned space of the internet it is not so easy. As an OSINT analyst I have had my share of sleepless nights worrying if the nugget I had found that day was more iron pyrites than precious metal.
The recent example of the Leveson Report demonstrates the potential dangers that lurk in the web. The report’s researchers, using Wikipedia as a source, had named Brett Straub as one of the cofounders, in 1986, of The Independent newspaper. Straub, it later turned out was actually a 25-year-old American student whose friends had added his name to numerous Wikipedia pages as a prank. Presumably Straub and his chums are more geek than animal house!
Wikipedia is a fantastic resource and the first port of call for many an OSINT analyst but only as a starting point and not as a primary source as the Leveson researchers used it. And they fell for a joke that even the perpetrators did not intend for anyone to take seriously.
Consider the sophistication with which internet fraudsters operate to fool you and then imagine what a state sponsored effort could look like. Deliberate misinformation however, is rare compared to genuinely erroneous information and ill-informed, unqualified or prejudiced opinion. In my next post I will describe some simple rules that make mining for gold on the internet less perilous.