Fairly early on in any intelligence course, there’s a lesson on SANDA – Sources and Agencies: where the information that we process into intelligence comes from. When I first sat through that lesson, a good few years ago, the instructor ran an exercise where the students listed the pros and cons of different sources of intelligence.
I remember that exercise well. I was lucky enough to have an incredibly good instructor, and it was a well thought-through exercise. Looking back on the conclusions we reached, however, it strikes me that very little of what we learned remains correct. Let’s take the following conclusion as an example:
“The major weakness of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is that it’s not taskable: If the information you want doesn’t exist, there’s nothing you can do about it – bad luck. So despite being cheap, widely available, timely and free from issues of protective marking, OSINT isn’t a really a proper source at all.”
Well guess what? It turns out that these days, OSINT is becoming taskable.
There’s an excellent article in this week’s New Scientist magazine which shows how online social networking sites and location based apps are being combined to provide a mechanism which makes it possible to ask specific questions of people who are in a specific location. Tellingly, one of the most advanced such systems is unavailable outside China – and this may give an indication of some of the difficulties inherent in this concept.
If the concept sounds a little far-fetched, it’s worth looking at one of the first questions asked on the Chinese platform:
“I heard there was a big fire and blackout in Lijiang. What’s going on now?”
To my mind, that’s a request for information which is very, very familiar, being a version of the incredibly common theme:
“I’ve heard a rumour and I want corroboration – please tell me the ground truth”.
I’d be interested to know if the organisation that trained me has updated this particular lesson. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that a lot of organisations out there are struggling to keep up with the current pace of change.