Open-source intelligence

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Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is intelligence collected from publicly available sources.[1] In the intelligence community (IC), the term "open" refers to overt, publicly available sources (as opposed to covert or clandestine sources); it is not related to open-source software or public intelligence.

Open sources for intelligence[edit]

OSINT includes all publicly accessible sources of information, such as:

  • Media: newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and computer-based information.
  • Web-based communities and user-generated content: social-networking sites, video sharing sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies.
  • Public data: government reports, official data such as budgets, demographics, hearings, legislative debates, press conferences, speeches, marine and aeronautical safety warnings, environmental impact statements and contract awards.
  • Observation and reporting: amateur airplane spotters, radio monitors and satellite observers among many others have provided significant information not otherwise available. The availability of worldwide satellite photography, often of high resolution, on the Web (e.g., Google Earth) has expanded open-source capabilities into areas formerly available only to major intelligence services.
  • Professional and academic (including grey literature): conferences, symposia, professional associations, academic papers, and subject matter experts.[2]
  • Most information has geospatial dimensions, but many often overlook the geospatial side of OSINT: not all open-source data is unstructured text. Examples of geospatial open source include maps, atlases, gazetteers, port plans, gravity data, aeronautical data, navigation data, geodetic data, human terrain data (cultural and economic), environmental data, commercial imagery, LIDAR, hyper and multi-spectral data, airborne imagery, geo-names, geo-features, urban terrain, vertical obstruction data, boundary marker data, geospatial mashups, spatial databases, and web services. Most of the geospatial data mentioned above is integrated, analyzed, and syndicated using geospatial software like a Geographic Information System (GIS) not a browser per se.
  • Deep Web - Information hidden from the Surface web currently estimated to represent the majority of content on the Web.[3]

OSINT is distinguished from research in that it applies the process of intelligence to create tailored knowledge supportive of a specific decision by a specific individual or group.[4]

Definers for OSINT[edit]

OSINT is defined by both the U.S. Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), as "produced from publicly available information that is collected, exploited, and disseminated in a timely manner to an appropriate audience for the purpose of addressing a specific intelligence requirement."[5]

OSINT is, as of 2005, defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget under the category of "Forces And Direct Support" and specifically for the DoD under Commercial Code M320 as[6]

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) collection/processing

Open-source intelligence under one name or another has been around for hundreds of years. The significance today of OSINT in the USA is the conflict between military, government, and the private sector as to how the bulk of intelligence should be obtained. With the advent of instant communications and rapid information transfer, a great deal of actionable and predictive intelligence can now be obtained from public, unclassified sources.

OSINT is especially helpful in addressing global coverage, a term encompassing all of the countries and topics that are not considered by the secret or national security worlds to be "vital."

Risks for practitioners[edit]

Accredited journalists have some protection in asking questions, and researching for recognized media outlets. Even so, they can be imprisoned, even executed, for seeking out OSINT. Private individuals illegally collecting data for a foreign military or intelligence agency is considered espionage in most countries. Of course, espionage that is not treason (i.e. betraying one's country of citizenship) has been a tool of statecraft since ancient times.[7]


According to the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction report submitted in March 2005, OSINT must be included in the all-source intelligence process for the following reasons (as stated in the report):

  1. The ever-shifting nature of our intelligence needs compels the IC to quickly and easily understand a wide range of foreign countries and cultures. – … today's threats are rapidly changing and geographically diffuse; it is a fact of life that an intelligence analyst may be forced to shift rapidly from one topic to the next. Increasingly, IC professionals need to quickly assimilate social, economic, and cultural information about a country—information often detailed in open sources.
  2. Open-source information provides a base for understanding classified materials. Despite large quantities of classified material produced by the IC, the amount of classified information produced on any one topic can be quite limited, and may be taken out of context if viewed only from a classified-source perspective. Perhaps the most important example today relates to terrorism, where open-source information can fill gaps and create links that allow analysts to better understand fragmented intelligence, rumored terrorist plans, possible means of attack, and potential targets.
  3. Open-source materials can protect sources and methods. Sometimes an intelligence judgment that is actually informed with sensitive, classified information can be defended on the basis of open-source reporting. This can prove useful when policy-makers need to explain policy decisions or communicate with foreign officials without compromising classified sources.
  4. Only open source can store history. A robust open-source program can, in effect, gather data to monitor the world's cultures and how they change with time. This is difficult, if not impossible, using the snapshots provided by classified collection methods.[8]


See also: Big Data

Information collection in OSINT is generally a different problem from collection in other intelligence disciplines where obtaining the raw information to be analyzed may be the major difficulty, particularly if it is to be obtained from non-cooperative targets. In OSINT, the chief difficulty is in identifying relevant, reliable sources from the vast amount of publicly available information. However, this is not as great a challenge for those who know how to access local knowledge and how to leverage human experts who can create new tailored knowledge on the fly.[citation needed]


The Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) was created in 1941 to access and exploit OSINT in relation to World War II. A classic example of their value and success is reflected in the price of oranges in Paris as an indicator of whether railroad bridges had been bombed successfully.

The recent history of OSINT began in 1988 when General Alfred M. Gray, Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps, called for a redirection of US intelligence away from the collapsing Soviet Union and toward non-state actors and Third World zones of instability. Additionally, he pointed out that most of the intelligence which needs to be known could be obtained via OSINT, and recommended a substantive increase in resources for this aspect of the intelligence collection spectrum of sources.[9]

In the fall of 1992, Senator David Boren, then Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sponsored the National Security Act of 1992, attempting to achieve modest reform in the U.S. Intelligence Community. His counterpart on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was Congressman Dave McCurdy. The House version of the legislation included a separate open-source office, at the suggestion of Larry Prior, a Marine Reservist familiar with the MCIC experience and then serving on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence staff.

The Aspin-Brown Commission stated in 1996 that US access to open sources was "severely deficient" and that this should be a "top priority" for both funding and DCI attention.

In issuing its July 2004 report, the 9/11 Commission recommended the creation of an open-source intelligence agency, but without further detail or comment.[10] Subsequently, the WMD Commission (also known as the Robb–Silberman Commission) report in March 2005 recommended the creation of an open-source directorate at the CIA.

Following these recommendations, in November 2005 the Director of National Intelligence announced the creation of the DNI Open Source Center. The Center was established to collect information available from "the Internet, databases, press, radio, television, video, geospatial data, photos and commercial imagery."[11] In addition to collecting openly available information, it would train analysts to make better use of this information. The Center absorbed the CIA's previously existing Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), originally established in 1941, with FBIS head Douglas Naquin named as director of the Center.[12]

In December 2005, the Director of National Intelligence appointed Eliot A. Jardines as the Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Open Source to serve as the Intelligence Community's senior intelligence officer for open source and to provide strategy, guidance and oversight for the National Open Source Enterprise.[13] Mr. Jardines has established the National Open Source Enterprise[14] and authored Intelligence Community Directive 301. In 2008, Mr. Jardines returned to the private sector and was succeeded by Dan Butler who is ADDNI/OS[15] and previously Mr. Jardines' Senior Advisor for Policy.[16]

OSINT communities[edit]


There are a large number of open-source activities taking place throughout the US Government. Frequently, these open-source activities are described as "media monitoring", "media analysis", "internet research" and "public surveys" but are open source nonetheless.

The Library of Congress sponsors the Federal Research Division (FRD) which conducts a great deal of tailored open-source research on a fee-for-service basis for the executive branch.


The US Intelligence Community's open-source activities (known as the National Open Source Enterprise) are dictated by Intelligence Community Directive 301 promulgated by the Director of National Intelligence.[17] The Directive establishes the authorities and responsibilities of the Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Open Source (ADDNI/OS), the DNI's Open Source Center and the National Open Source Committee.

Prior to the establishment of the National Open Source Enterprise, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), established in 1941, was the government's primary open-source unit, transcribing and translating foreign broadcasts. It absorbed the Defense Department's Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS), which did a similar function with foreign printed materials, including newspapers, magazines, and technical journals.

Armed Forces[edit]

The former Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Dr. Stephen Cambone encouraged in part by the Defense Science Board reports on Strategic Communication and Transition to and From Hostilities, created the Defense Open Source Program (DOSP). The current Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence is assigned executive agency for this program to the Defense Intelligence Agency.

U.S. military offices that engage in OSINT activities include:

Homeland Security[edit]

The Department of Homeland Security has an active open-source intelligence unit. In congressional testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee's Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee the Undersecretary of Homeland Security Charles Allen indicated on February 14, 2007, that he had established the "Domestic Open Source Enterprise" to support the Department's OSINT needs and that of state, local and tribal partners.

Law enforcement[edit]

The law enforcement OSINT community applies open-source intelligence (OSINT) to the prediction, prevention, investigation, and prosecution of criminals including terrorists.[18]

Examples of successful law enforcement OSINT include Scotland Yard OSINT; Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) OSINT.

INTERPOL and EUROPOL experimented with OSINT units for a time, but they appear to have atrophied with the departure of their individual champions.

New York Police Department (NYPD) is known to have an OSINT unit, as does the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, housed within the Emergency Operations Bureau and affiliated with the LA Joint Regional Intelligence Center.


Business OSINT encompasses Commercial Intelligence, Competitor Intelligence, and Business Intelligence, and is often a chief area of practice of private intelligence agencies.

Businesses may use information brokers and private investigators to collect and analyze relevant information for business purposes which may include the media, deep web, web 2.0 and commercial content.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Open Source Intelligence" (PDF). 
  2. ^ Lowenthal, Mark M. Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, 2nd Ed. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2003) p. 79.
  3. ^ Vetter, Max. "Open source intelligence techniques and the Dark Web". Retrieved 2016-04-11. 
  4. ^ "Spy Agencies Turn to Newspapers, NPR, and Wikipedia for Information: The intelligence community is learning to value 'open-source' information". Retrieved 2008-09-15. 
  5. ^ As defined in Sec. 931 of Public Law 109-163, entitled, "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006."
  6. ^ FAIR Act Inventory Commercial Activities Inventory Function Codes
  7. ^ Sun Tzu (Warring States period), The Art of War, Chapter 13: "Hostile armies may face each other for years, striving for the victory which is decided in a single day. This being so, to remain in ignorance of the enemy's condition simply because one grudges the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver in honors and emoluments, is the height of inhumanity."
  8. ^ (The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities, 378–379). Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction
  9. ^ General Alfred M. Gray, "Global Intelligence Challenges in the 1990s", American Intelligence Journal (Winter 1989–1990)
  10. ^ See page 413 of the 9-11 Commission Report (pdf).
  11. ^ Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "ODNI Announces Establishment of Open Source Center". Press release, 8 November 2005.
  12. ^ Ensor, David. "The Situation Report: Open source intelligence center". CNN, 8 November 2005.
  13. ^ Office of the Director of National Intelligence "ODNI Senior Leadership Announcement". Press release, 7 December 2005.
  14. ^ "National Open Source Entreprise Vision Statement" May 2006
  15. ^ DNI Open Source Conference 2008 "Decision Advantage" agenda, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, July 2008.
  16. ^ DNI Open Source Conference 2007 "Expanding the Horizons" agenda, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, July 2007.
  17. ^ DNI Intelligence Community Directive 301 – "National Open Source Enterprise" 11 July 2006.
  18. ^
  •, Washington Times – CIA mines 'rich' content from blogs, 19 April 2006
  •, Government Computer News – Intelligence units mine the benefits of public sources 20 March 2006
  •, SIGNAL Magazine – Intelligence Center Mines Open Sources March 2006
  •, Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin October–December, 2005 by Barbara G. Fast
  •, Congressional Testimony on OSINT and Homeland Security 21 June 2005
  •, Open Source Intelligence by Stalder and Hirsh, 15 May 2002
  •, When Everyone Can Mine Your Data by Taylor Buley, 11.21.08]
  • [1], Open-Source Spying, article from the New York Times, about open sources and wikis
  •, Maltego and the science of 'open-source' snooping by Matt Asay, November 25, 2008


Scientific Publications

External links[edit]

Advocacy and analysis of OSINT
  •, FMSO-JRIC and Open Source Intelligence: speaking prose in a world of verse, Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, Oct–Dec, 2005 by Jacob W. Kipp
Information Security