French seminar on open-source intelligence (OSINT)

From 1st to 3rd of March 2023, France welcomed in Paris an Intelligence College in Europe seminar on open-source intelligence (OSINT). During this event, the six main French intelligence services, as well as academics, EU and European member states services representatives and civil society members have been able to dialogue on their views and concerns as far as challenges and developments of OSINT are concerned.

Even if OSINT is still delicate to define in a homogenous way all over Europe and beyond, a few consensuses arose thank to the various presentations. OSINF (Open Source Information) is one part of the scene, it encompasses commercial data basis or available in open data, accessible to the public for any kind of purpose (research, watch). On the other hand, OSINT covers more targeted field. It is concrete and actionable intelligence collected on precise target, with complex techniques from screening to de-anonymisation. The purpose of the collection makes the difference between OSINF and OSINT.

The war in Ukraine has accelerated the awareness about the wealth and the provision of data OSINT in terms of quantity and in terms of nature. In concrete terms, one can identify four families of OSINT data: content (audio, video, text), information data (selectors), interactions data (links) and quantity.

This information overload implies the development of specific tools but also the professionalization of the Osinters. Indeed, a strategy of automatization is a must but it is not enough. A critical analysis of the result provided stays unavoidable. A final analysis remains key, AI – even if it eases a lot the analysis of sets of data – cannot detect slight nuances such as sarcasm and irony, which are almost impossible to be integrated by an algorithm. That is where the human factor steps in as far as OSINT is concerned.

Training Osinters has become the main current challenge. OSINT is now on, a genuine craft and even several crafts in one job. Osinters still have to find their place in intelligence where Humint is still seen as the “noble” art. This place will have to be found through a constant dialogue between Osinters and experts (geographic or thematic ones). The analyst/expert and the Osinter have to work together closely. Each category has to be able to master the mission of the other (as much as possible at least) in order for the analysts to make requests corresponding to what the Osinters can achieve with the tools they have. Conversely Osinters have to be able to spot a relevant information even if they haven’t been asked to look for it. Hence, OSINT is a challenge as much technical as human. It implies training and substantial investments.

Professionalisation of OSINT is not only a challenge for intelligence and defence. It is also at stake for journalism and even for the judicial world where a world of questionings is arising as far as the use of OSINT is concerned (in case of war crime for instance).

The founder of the NGO Openfacto (created in 2019) explained the concept of citizen journalism which can find support in OSINT. He mentioned the constraints existing in this field such as risk of manipulation, importance of the English-speaking media, lack of resources when you want to protect your won editorial freedom, lack of legal protection… Part of those constraints can be counterbalanced in case of cooperation with consortiums of mainstream newspapers with resources, lawyers and translation capacities.

In the future, access to information will be a new challenge. The data flows valves are progressively closing. Twitter, Meta, Instagram have adopted new policies making access to data more difficult. The Splinternet trend – regionalization of internet – is making it worse. Access will still be possible but it is going to be expensive. OSINT is a commodity, it has a cost and generates a market which is clandestine most of the time. 90% of open information is public. OSINT can complete and even replace “classical” intelligence when this one is too dangerous to collect. Some of the OSINT tools that used to be valid, may not be used anymore at a given time because, among other things, of the progressive implementation of patches on security flaws. Hence, Osinters have to adapt constantly to technical developments to remain efficient.

Among the other challenges to take up, semantic will be significant because it is linked with the e-learning machine concept. Artificial Intelligence, Deepfake and ChatGPT will make OSINT activities even harder because of their consequences on the manipulation of information. OSINT related risks are of ethical nature as well. One has to stay very much alert about the old question of who gains. OSINT is a field where information is distributed, which means it is a field of influence. The conflict in Ukraine and the use of OSINT in this context have been game changers. OSINT has become a tool used in support of influence operations. All the operating forces rely on Osinters communities in order to save time and money. Once checked and made reliable, OSINT is one source of intelligence among other sources. It can still be a tool for propaganda, influence and manipulation as well.