Open source intelligence

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Open source intelligence (OSINT) is an intelligence collection discipline that uses materials available, in principle, to the public. To put "public" in context, some material, for example, might be a foreign-language radio broadcast that has to be transcribed and translated into the language of the intelligence analysts and consumers.

News media, therefore, are a major contributor to OSINT. Most 24-hour intelligence watch and military operations centers have a television set constantly tuned to the Cable News Network. The World Wide Web contributes massively to OSINT.

NATO has been emphasizing the special value of OSINT in coalition operations. The U.S. can trace its OSINT history back to the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, created by the Federal Communications Commissions, in the 1940s, before the United States intelligence community even existed.


NATO characterizes OSINT as "unclassified information that has been deliberately discovered, discriminated, distilled and disseminated to a select audience in order to address a specific question. It provides a very robust foundation for other intelligence disciplines. When applied in a systematic fashion, OSINT products can reduce the demands on classified intelligence collection resources by limiting requests for information only to those questions that cannot be answered by open sources."[1]

United States

The National Security Act of 1947 authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to provide "services of common concern" to what became the United States intelligence community. Until the 2004 reorganization of the intelligence community, one of those "services of common concern" was OSINT from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS).[2] FBIS, which had absorbed the Joint Publication Research Service, a military organization that translated documents,[3] which moved into the National Open Source Enterprise under the Director of National Intelligence.

CIA long provided a variety of unclassified maps and reference documents both to the intelligence community and the public.[4] This has moved to the ODNI Maps Services Center.

As part of its mandate to gather intelligence, CIA is looking increasingly online for information, and has become a major consumer of social media. "We're looking at YouTube, which carries some unique and honest-to-goodness intelligence," said Doug Naquin, director of the DNI Open Source Center (OSC) at CIA. "We're looking at chat rooms and things that didn't exist five years ago, and trying to stay ahead."[5]

The U.S. Army, in a draft doctrinal manual for the Army and for joint operations, sees the sources of OSINT as:[6]

  • Public speaking
  • Public broadcasts
  • Public documents
  • Internet resources

Capabilities and Vulnerabilities

NATO sees OSINT as especially useful for coalition operations, as material to which all participants, with different levels of access to classified information, can have access. V-OSINT can provide information withour revealing the details of the classified validation.[1]

Validated OSINT

An area of concern deals with the possibility that an adversary will plant open source material, with the intent of deception of OSINT analysts. [7] In its budget review comments encouraging the use of OSINT, the Armed Services Committee "urges the Secretary of Defense to ensure, through the use of all reasonable means, protection of government investigators involved in gathering open source intelligence. These means should include proven non-attribution services, as well as development of appropriate tactics, techniques and procedures that are incorporated into manuals and training programs."

The concept of validated OSINT (V-OSINT) refers to OSINT that is confirmed by non-open information. NATO defines V-OSINT ia information to which a very high degree of certainty can be attributed. It can be produced by an all-source intelligence professional, with access to classified intelligence sources, whether working for a nation or for a coalition staff. It can also come from an assured open source to which no question can be raised concerning its validity (images of an aircraft arriving at an airport that are broadcast over the media).

The U.S. Army observes,

More than any other intelligence discipline, the OSINT discipline could unintentionally provide

indicators of US military operations. Information generally available to the public as well as certain detectable activities such as open source research and collection can reveal the existence of, and sometimes details about, classified or sensitive information or undertakings. Such indicators may assist those seeking to neutralize or exploit US military operations. Purchasing documents, searching an Internet site, or asking questions at public events are examples of detectable open source research and collection techniques that

could provide indicators of US plans and operation[6]

A good example of the above is "MILNET: Intelligence Agencies by Function" [[1]]


  1. 1.0 1.1 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (November 2001), NATO Open Source Intelligence Handbook
  2. Mercado, Stephen (2007-04-15). Reexamining the Distinction Between Open Information and Secrets. Central Intelligence Agency Center for the Study of Intelligence. Retrieved on 2008-05-01.
  3. Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS)
  4. CIA Maps & Publications
  5. Thomas Claburn (2008-02-06). CIA Monitors YouTube For Intelligence. InformationWeek. Retrieved on 2008-02-11.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Department of the Army (December 2006, expires December 2008), FMI 2-22.9 Open Source Intelligence (Draft)
  7. Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, 110th Congress, 2nd session (16 May 2008), Non-attribution of open source intelligence research, Report on the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act, Report 110-652