A Quiet Revolution in Intelligence Operations

By Panjandrum / 1 April 2013 / Intel Analysis, Other, Technology

Coal Mining, Gold Panning or Desalination?

A quiet revolution is occurring in the world of intelligence. By my estimation it started around ten years ago, but it appears to have escaped the attention of many. Let me use an analogy to explain.

The analogy between HUMINT and coal mining works particularly well: Both are incredibly hard work, frequently dangerous and almost inevitably bad for your health.

The analogy between HUMINT and coal mining works particularly well: Both are incredibly hard work, frequently dangerous and almost inevitably bad for your health.

Fifteen years ago, intelligence operations were like coal mining, where information is analogous with coal. We had a reasonably good idea of where the coal was and we expended significant effort and expense in retrieving it. The work was dirty and dangerous, but a hard day’s coal mining generally resulted in a big pile of what was, unambiguously, coal (or intelligence, in this analogy). The quality of your intelligence operations depended largely on the amount of time and money you were willing to throw at extraction. In those days, we were collection-centric.

Charlemagne doing OSINT. He’s mechanised the operation these days, but the principle, and the facial hair, remain similar.

Charlemagne doing OSINT. He’s mechanised the operation these days, but the principle, and the facial hair, remain similar.

Today, intelligence operations are more like panning for gold. A vast quantity of water (information) flows past us, and we must somehow filter out the gold (useful information) whilst letting the river flow on by. This analogy holds true whether the source is OSINT, SIGINT, IMINT, and many other types of intelligence besides – the volume of data we have to work with is just staggeringly large. It takes a skilled analyst to spot the tiny flecks of gold amongst the detritus. Iron Pyrites, or Fools Gold, abounds. We are now less collection-centric because the water is all around us. The focus has moved to processing and analysis.

Now, at the risk of over-complicating, let’s take the analogy a step further: There’s so much information (water) that we don’t have any real hope of obtaining even a small percentage of the useful stuff with a manual panning process. So put away the mental image of the hirsute, gap-toothed old-timer, and consider something like a desalination plant instead (this time salt is analogous with information – please do try and keep up).

A desalination plant. Less than 4% of seawater is salt. Less than 0.001% of twitter is exploitable intelligence. For OSINT to work, we need to mechanise the desalination process.

A desalination plant. Less than 4% of seawater is salt. Less than 0.001% of twitter is exploitable intelligence. For OSINT to keep pace in the 21st Century, we need to mechanise the desalination process.

We still have coal miners – those men (and increasingly women) who do the frequently dirty and dangerous job of collecting information in the traditional way, particularly in the field of HUMINT. We will always need them, because there is some information which can only be collected in this way. This somewhat contorted series of analogies isn’t intended to diminish the value of coal miners – merely to point out that our trade is undergoing a quiet revolution.

As ever, comments, criticism and opposing viewpoints are welcome…

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