Should Open Source Intelligence Be Used For Policy Making?
from the transparent-and-verifiable dept
Last summer, we wrote about the rise of open journalism, whereby people take publicly-available information, typically on social networks, to extract important details that other, more official sources either overlook or try to hide. Since then, one of the pioneers of that approach, Eliot Higgins, has used crowdfunding to set up a site called "Bellingcat", dedicated to applying these techniques. Principal themes there include the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), and the civil war in Syria.
Higgins recently published a post on the blog of the Policy Institute at King's College, London, in which he suggested that such open source intelligence (OSINT) could be used for formulating policy in situations where traditional sources of information are limited:
In recent years, content shared via social media from conflict war zones has allowed us to gain a far deeper understanding of the on-the-ground realities of specific conflicts than previously possible. This presents a real opportunity for providing robust evidence which can underpin foreign and security policymaking about emerging, or rapidly escalating, conflict zones.
He cites his own group's work on the shooting-down of the MH17 flight as an example, noting some of the advantages and challenges:
Our research on the Buk missile launcher demonstrates that not only is there a wealth of largely untapped information available online and especially on social media, but also that a relatively small team of analysts is able to derive a rich picture of a conflict zone. Clearly, research of this kind must be underpinned by an understanding of the way in which content is being produced, who is sharing it, and, crucially, how to verify it -- and these are methodological challenges which need to be addressed systematically.
That call for open source information to be used more widely has now been echoed by two researchers at the International Centre for Security Analysis, also at King's College -- not surprisingly, perhaps, since they too use this technique in their work:
There is a powerful case for incorporating OSINT approaches to evidence-based policymaking. In the first place, evidence produced by OSINT methods can be both robust and rigorous, not least because it can be underpinned by extensive datasets. And in the second, it has the potential to be both transparent and verifiable; all open source evidence is, by definition, based on data that is publicly (and often freely) available.
However, they note that so far the uptake of such methods to inform policy-making has been very limited. Here's why:
At the heart of the problem is the fact that OSINT approaches are still relatively 'young' and, all too often in our experience, lack the rigour and reliability needed to underpin effective policymaking.
To overcome those issues, they suggest that practitioners of OSINT should develop more reliable open intelligence tools and methods, and should communicate better the advantages of this approach. They also urge policy makers to take open source intelligence into consideration as an additional form of evidence, but given the conservatism and risk aversion in these circles, I imagine it will take some time before that happens.