Open-Source Intelligence: A Double-Edged Sword

By Captain T. S. Allen, U.S. Army

User-generated content is content that users produce and post on a publicly accessible information system. A large amount of user-generated content is shared on social networking websites including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Today, a large proportion of user-generated content is shared via smartphones that incorporate cameras, geolocation systems, and can connect to social networks and other databases via apps. This is a recent development: in 2011 , only 35 percent of Americans had a smartphone; by 2018 77 percent did.

User-generated content is a key source of open-source intelligence. It is publicly available and includes massive amounts of imagery, information, and location data. As a result, armed forces around the world have emphasized the importance of keeping information about military operations off of social networks. Nonetheless, in January 2018, the fitness app Strava released a global heatmap of 13 trillion data points showing places the world where runners had used the app, creating what open source analyst Dr. Jeffrey Lewis called “a security nightmare for governments around the world.” The heatmap suggested the locations of and popular running routes on numerous military installations.

Fortunately, the Strava heatmap did not result in a military catastrophe. The risks it created were minor because the massive dataset lacked identifying details. However, the heatmap illustrates that it has become routine for Americans to broadcast information through smartphones and social networks with little concern for their privacy, which made it easier to identify the location of U.S. service personnel. It will not be the last time an app reveals data which blindsides users, and future data releases may be more detailed, as users become increasingly comfortable with sharing data (and are increasingly incentivized to do so by corporations who profit from access to consumers’ data and content).

Complex machines also are sharing more information, sometimes without human intervention. The aviation industry has led the way, and by 1 January 2020, all aircraft—including military aircraft—flying in most U.S. airspace must be equipped with an automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) “out” transmitter. The transmitter will broadcast the aircraft’s position, altitude, and velocity to any ADS-B receiver as part of the federally-mandated Next Generation Air Transportation System. ADS-B data will provide the foundation of collision avoidance and air-traffic control efforts. It also will make it easy to track U.S. military aircraft. As a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on ADS-B noted: “Individuals—including adversaries—could track military aircraft equipped with ADS-B Out technology, presenting risks to physical security and operations.” Despite examining the issue since 2008, the Department of Defense has not resolved key questions about how ADS-B will impact the operational security of military aircraft, according to the GAO .

Within the next ten years, most ground and sea vehicles also will routinely broadcast information about their location. Several vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems for ground vehicles that can support collision avoidance technology already exist, and in December 2016 the Department of Transportation proposed draft rules that gradually would make V2V systems mandatory for most private and many commercial ground vehicles in the United States. At sea, the International Maritime Organization already mandates that ships over 300 tons and all passenger ships continuously broadcast data about their location through the automatic identification system (AIS) to assist with collision avoidance.

Vehicles broadcasting for collision avoidance purposes need to transmit unencrypted, easily readable data. This makes the data accessible to anyone who can operate a simple electronic receiver. Today, numerous hobbyist “plane spotters” use commercially available ADS-B receivers to track aircraft, and thousands of ADS-B receivers around the world are set up to continuously feed ADS-B information to publicly accessible websites. While the proliferation of ADS-B receivers parallels the “democratization of signals intelligence” that has been described by the RAND Corporation, the prevalence of automatically re-transmitting ADS-B receivers means that flight tracking data is functionally open-source information . Eventually, ground and sea vehicles will likely also have their locations continuously received and re-broadcast over the internet by hobbyists and commercial organizations. Like ADS-B, AIS and most V2V systems transmit unencrypted data that can be read by anyone with a receiver nearby.

Why It Matters

Open-source intelligence has tactical relevance. The United States has used Islamic State fighters’ social media posts to identify and strike their locations. U.S. enemies also have used social media to identify targets: in 2007, Iraqi insurgents successfully destroyed four U.S. Army attack helicopters with mortar fire after identifying the location of the aircraft from a geotagged photo posted by a soldier on a social network.

However, the greatest utility of open-source information, especially for organizations with established intelligence networks, is to shape strategic understanding rather than a commander’s picture of the battlefield. [1] Institutional open sources such as newspapers have long shaped strategic understanding, but today, information shared by individuals is just as important. In February 2014, Russian soldiers without identifying insignia seized control of the Crimean region of Ukraine during a period of political upheaval. The open-source information confirming the presence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine galvanized European and U.S. support for Ukraine and shaped public attitudes.

The United States has the least to gain from open-source intelligence, as it already has extensive resources to identify objects of interest with great precision. Many contemporary open sources, such as satellite imagery distributed freely on the internet, have been used by the U.S. Armed Forces and intelligence community for decades. In other words, despite some new opportunities for collection, this trend is largely negative for the US.

Open sources instead will have a greater impact on the intelligence capabilities of VNSAs and developing states. With the proliferation of ADS-B technology, for example, a VNSA can set up a reasonably effective air surveillance network for thousands of dollars. This could allow them to evade intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights meant to collect on them and provide warnings of a strike by a major power. Even states with advanced air surveillance networks may find ADS-B receivers are a useful, resource-efficient supplement to more advanced technology. Similarly, user-generated content is an unparalleled source of potential information for VNSAs and other hostile actors seeking to target U.S. individuals.

Most importantly, the U.S. military will never again be able to mass forces in any theater without many of the details being known to the world. The end of “strategic surprise” will not fundamentally change state-on-state warfare, as armies and fleets have always been hard to hide from states. However, it will inhibit the ability of the U.S. armed forces to conduct major campaigns against VNSAs. In the future, VNSAs will use open source intelligence to gain advantages that will affect the outcome of campaigns. Exactly how significant this will be is hard to predict and will depend on numerous other factors, but this change is ongoing, as the norms and technology that drive it already exist.

[1] RA Best, “Open Source Intelligence (OSINT): Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 2007.

Captain Allen  is a military intelligence officer serving in the U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group.




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