Open Source Intelligence

What we do and why

Yesterday’s issue, that explored efforts to dissect the recent attempted insurrection, was partly a result of open source intelligence efforts.

Whether New York Times or volunteers on the Internet, there has been an open, widespread, and participatory effort to identify people involved in the events of January 6th.

This has ranged from just browsing available social media, to more engaged activity, as described in our issue on historian as hacker.

Yet what happens when mistakes are made or conclusions are drawn using flimsy or unreliable information?

The easy availability of information on the internet has made open source intelligence — OSINT — a valuable tool for researchers and ordinary web users. Collaborative group research, and the subsequent shaming of individuals, uses publicly available data gathered across social media platforms, including facial recognition, IP addresses, satellite imagery, news media and online public records. Around the world, OSINT, which dates back to World War II but gained momentum after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, has been used to spot burned villages in Myanmar, reveal Russian bombings of hospitals in Syria, profile surveillance hubs operated by U.S. law enforcement and even to locate internationally wanted animal abusers.

The recent attack on the U.S. congress has mobilized internet users to track down insurrectionists, with the encouragement of law enforcement. The FBI and police departments around the country have called on the public to help identify some of the suspects. Two days after the violent mob stormed the capitol, Twitter users, utilizing OSINT, identified two men armed with zip ties and other plastic restraints. Eric Gavelek Munchel and Larry Rendell Brock were subsequently arrested by the FBI.

While the use of open source intelligence has been praised by law enforcement and investigative journalists for its crime-solving efficiency, public data can be dangerous when used in haste on social media. The speed that makes OSINT so effective as an investigative tool can also make its use more susceptible to blunders and bias. From terrorist attacks to protests and mass shootings, open source intelligence has led to inaccurate vigilante-style justice and the doxxing of innocent individuals.

Like any powerful tool or in this case research methodology, there is a responsibility to act ethically, or morally, acknowledging that ethics and morals are themselves subjective.

Similarly it’s worth noting that open source intelligence means different things to a journalist compared to an intelligence analyst or operative, wither government or private sector. The word or concept is used actively by these different groups, and its meaning provides more of a spectrum that ranges between them, rather than a specific technical method.

If you were to go to Google Scholar, and put in the phrase open source intelligence, you’ll find that the oldest and most cited paper was co-authored by Felix Stalder and myself. Here’s the abstract from the essay we wrote in 2002:

The Open Source movement has established over the last decade a new collaborative approach, uniquely adapted to the Internet, to developing high-quality informational products. Initially, its exclusive application was the development of software (GNU/Linux and Apache are among the most prominent projects), but increasingly we can observe this collaborative approach being applied to areas beyond the coding of software. One such area is the collaborative gathering and analysis of information, a practice we term "Open Source Intelligence". In this article, we use three case studies - the nettime mailing list, the Wikipedia project and the NoLogo Web site - to show some the breadth of contexts and analyze the variety of socio-technical approaches that make up this emerging phenomenon.

The Nettime list continues to this day, as does Wikipedia, NoLogo, not so much. This recent thread from Nettime started by Felix had some interesting discussion:

We digress, but open source intelligence as a concept is gaining further traction in no small part due to the work of Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat:

Higgins and his team have been very effective at ‘belling the cat’. In 2018, they uncovered the identity of the men who poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. In an absurd interview on Russian state TV, the two suspects claimed to have been tourists, visiting Salisbury to view the cathedral. Bellingcat established that they were GRU operatives, a kill team working for Russian military intelligence. Higgins’s work evidently touched a nerve. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told an interviewer: ‘Bellingcat is closely connected with the intelligence services, which use it to channel information intended to influence public opinion.’

Higgins, whom I have met and interviewed, denies this. What’s more, he is completely unfazed by having made such powerful enemies. In a further investigation published after this book’s completion, Bellingcat identified the men who tried to assassinate Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. The culprits this time were operatives from the FSB, the Russian security service.

This determination to reveal awkward facts has led Bellingcat to focus on what Higgins calls ‘the counterfactual community’, the radical, conspiracy-obsessed online culture that has begun seeping out into the real world, with hideous consequences. As Higgins explains, the man who carried out the Pittsburg synagogue massacre in 2018 was radicalised by websites featuring anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, Nazi memes and ‘ironic’ white supremacist language. A mass murder at a Texas synagogue that same year was also announced on an extremist website, as was the 2019 Christchurch massacre at a New Zealand mosque.

Without doubt Bellingcat is engaged in interesting research that we should be making more of an effort to explore and share.

Certainly a benefit of open source intelligence is its openness, and just as we tend to promote open source technology we should not forget to do the same throughout the larger genre.

However we’re engaged in our own research journey, regarding artificial intelligence, democracy, and participatory media. This has not only led to recent arguments against the neutrality of data, or the benefit of emotion for cognition, but also questioning the democratic church of journalism.

This causes us to diverge from the Bellingcat vision of what an open source intelligence agency or network would be:

Bellingcat is an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open source and social media investigation to probe a variety of subjects – from Mexican drug lords and crimes against humanity, to tracking the use of chemical weapons and conflicts worldwide. With staff and contributors in more than 20 countries around the world, we operate in a unique field where advanced technology, forensic research, journalism, investigations, transparency and accountability come together.

Bellingcat regards open source intelligence as the evolution of journalism. In contrast, we regard OSI as a departure from journalism.

Make no mistake, the work Bellingcat is doing is important, valuable, and worth observing, if not supporting. However their ability to maintain an ethical or moral approach to their work will be difficult in an economy that values attention and delivers that attention to advertisers. In this Bellingcat does not exist in a vacuum, but rather as part of a larger media ecosystem.

While Metaviews is a media network, we do not subscribe to the concept of journalism. Those who do subscribe to journalism might regard what we do as a kind of advocacy, or even activism, although I like to joke it’s closer to propaganda.

Yet if you were to regard Metaviews beyond the frame of journalism, we can best be described as a network, an open source intelligence network.

In October of 2019, we published a newsletter under the title “We’re all spies now”. Here’s an excerpt for those too busy to click the link and to help me make my point:

In a surveillance society we’re all engaged in pervasive surveillance. Little brothers and little sisters with our eyes open. Yet who are we feeding this intelligence too? How is this intel being used? How could or should it be used?

In today’s dispatch from the near future let’s discuss the rise of crowd-sourced intelligence agencies within the context of open source intelligence.

In reading these words you’ve, joined the Metaviews intelligence network. Hopefully you’re giving us feedback and suggestions.

If you’re a Facebook user then you’re also an agent for them. Twitter is a powerful intelligence agency that has effectively turned journalists, politicians, and many celebrities. Reddit is an easy example of a crowd-sourced intelligence agency, given the collaborative investigations that have taken place on the platform, for better or for worse, accurate or not.

So who are you spying for? Hopefully yourself? Your friends? Your family even?

At Metaviews we try to spy for each other. Like a mutual aid network.

Like many intelligence networks, we’ve been content with the shadows, shrouded in near secrecy, obscure and mysterious. Perhaps that should change? As an open source intelligence network should we be more open?

We’ll try! ;)

Although you should as well. We are here to serve our members. If you want specific content, salons, videos, stunts, or events, let us know, and we’ll try and make it happen.