Open Source Intelligence May Be Changing Old-School War

Intelligence collected from public information online could be impacting traditional warfare and altering the calculus between large and small powers.

An open-source panopticon—from commercial big data aggregation to information infrastructure across mobile, smart devices, and social media—is reshaping the way intelligence is collected and used in a conventional war.

Open-source intelligence is information that can be readily and legally accessed by the general public. It was used in war and diplomacy long before the internet—alongside information stolen or otherwise secretly obtained and closely held. But its prevalence today means what was once cost-prohibitive to many is now affordable to myriad actors, whether North Korea, the CIA, journalists, terrorists, or cybercriminals.

One consequence of widely available open source information is that anonymity is eroding, not only for ordinary civilians, but also for members of law enforcement, military, and the intelligence community. Even missing information can alert an adversarial spy service, says a former US intelligence official who spoke on background. When the US State Department unfolded a public diplomacy strategy in 2008 that emphasized the use of social media, a foreign counterpart joked to the former US intelligence official that CIA officers, working under nonofficial cover at US embassies, were easily deduced because they lacked Facebook profiles. The US government has a gargantuan effort underway to address similar issues brought on by an absence or expectation of digital exhaust associated with intelligence officers’ cover identities.

When it comes to modern intelligence collection, closed societies like North Korea, Russia, and Iran have an advantage against open ones. Both secrecy and transparency—or the control of information, whether by individuals or governments—are integral to the freedom and security of those individuals and societies. Closed societies can collect an open one’s information with ease, all the while preventing access to similar information from domestic political opponents or hostile foreign actors.

But too much secrecy on the part of governments and militaries—including those of Russia’s Vladimir Putin—can also prevent them from knowing themselves, which may contribute to strategic blunders. Information technology, by its nature, disintegrates boundaries. It erodes barriers to markets across sectors and societies: from journalism to intelligence, crime to terrorism—and now it seems, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, conventional war.

Intelligence isn’t just information, says Jeff Rogg, a historian of US intelligence whose work focuses on civil-intelligence relations. The objective of intelligence, compared to just information, is obtaining or maintaining an advantage over one’s adversaries—whether that intelligence is secret or open source. This principle is at play when the Biden administration declassifies intelligence in an unprecedented manner in order to counter Russian misinformation or shares secret intelligence with Ukrainian counterparts.

“Given the emphasis placed on open sources in the war in Ukraine, it’s easy to forget how successful intelligence outcomes can also depend on secrecy, and even a bit of deception. Attributing successes in Ukraine to open sources can also offer a cover of sorts for more closely held sources and methods,” says Rogg.

British scholar Matthew Ford, coauthor of an upcoming book on the impact information infrastructure and connected devices have on conventional military conflicts, calls the phenomenon “radical war.”

Ford says that the high level of mobile connectivity among Ukrainians and a notable absence of combat footage from smartphones and headcams, especially in the early phases of the war, suggest an effective information operation may be underway. “No doubt the Ukrainians fear such images will reveal their tactics, techniques, and procedures,” says Ford. So Ukrainians may simply be censoring themselves.

Social media platforms and cell phones are also a force multiplier for traditionally weaker military powers, like Ukraine, especially when it comes to coordinating intelligence collection for targeting activities. “Targeting information is now being exchanged online,” Ford says. “Successful kills have been celebrated on Telegram. Chatbots have been established, helping Ukrainians share target coordinates with their smartphones. Identifying targets doesn’t involve complex military systems; it works from civilian information infrastructures.”

“The problem with crowdsourced intelligence in a war like Ukraine is standardizing the reporting,” Ford says. For example: “You want to be able to identify the vehicle, geo-locate it, then map against any available signals or satellite imagery, or other collection disciplines, fusing it into actionable target information.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only the 21st century’s first conventional war in Europe, it is the “most digitally connected in history,” according to Ford. “If the Ukrainians can make that intelligence actionable quicker than the Russians, they can use their limited remote fires, artillery, drones, and maybe even missiles or air power effectively. The objective, therefore, is to find, fix, and finish Russian forces more quickly than the Russians can do this themselves.”

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion in late February, the US, its allies, and Russia concluded that Ukraine’s forces were asymmetrically disadvantaged against Putin’s endowed and historically brutal counterpart. US officials expected the country to fall in days. Yet despite the US’s monumental success predicting Russia’s intentions and plans and offering warnings, American intelligence agencies incorrectly assessed Ukraine’s prospects—the current subject of an internal review.

Facing the full onslaught of Russia’s armed forces, Ukraine’s military resilience may even have come as a bit of a surprise to Ukrainians themselves, Ford suspects. Yet mistaken judgments about the expected balance between strong and weak powers, accompanied by strategic surprise, may be a common occurrence in the information age. Before the acknowledged role of social media in fueling the Arab Spring, or the reported significance of thumb drives in more recent counterintelligence failures—telecommunications, open source infrastructure, and cheap and accessible consumer technology have impacted the parity calculus for state and non-state actors alike.

Indeed, it was the worldwide growth of telecommunications in the 1990s that empowered Al-Qaeda to conduct its successful covert military attacks on US soil on September 11, 2001. But in the run-up to those attacks, the US Department of Defense hadn’t drafted a net assessment on the military or intelligence capabilities of what was later described by the 9/11 Commission as America’s “most dangerous foreign enemy.” The concept was unimaginable then, but it shouldn’t be now.

Similarly, the intelligence community had not authored a national estimate that comprehensively evaluated or articulated the strategic threat posed by Al-Qaeda before its 2001 attack. This category of cognitive bias is called the “paradox of expertise.” Genuine experts may communicate incredible nuance and understanding of a subject but overlook indicators of seismic changes within the domains of their knowledge.

It’s also possible to make analytical errors by overstating or inflating the impact or outcomes of technology and information on civil society—or any domain—including conventional war. The internet, which promised us a techno-utopian commune of open source information, has arguably turned large swaths of civil society into psychedelic hellscapes, much like the Charles Manson murders after the Summer of Love.

Civilian noncombatants’ use of open source platforms and consumer devices in support of hostile military actions raise serious questions about blurred lines between civilian and combatant—lawful or otherwise—leading to the same subjects becoming legitimate targets or tried for espionage under the laws of war. Civilians are legally protected under international humanitarian law, as long as they are not party to military conflicts.

According to recent reports, US intelligence support led to the successful targeting of Russian generals and the Moskva, Russia’s flagship in the Black Sea. “One of the intelligence concerns people have voiced is that these leaks unnecessarily raise the risks of escalation,” Rogg says. “But consider the Javelins, Stingers, and military hardware we are publicly providing. The US and its allies are fighting an overt—as compared to covert—proxy war against Russia. That’s one of the key distinctions in this conflict from, for example, US support to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which is one of the popular comparisons you read about today: The US is taking a risk by abandoning some of the hallmarks of intelligence and advantages of covert action, like plausible deniability. That being said, there is still plenty that we do not know. Putting aside all the reporting, leaks, and official disclosures, the exact role and impact of US intelligence in Ukraine will be a source of study and debate for years to come.”

All Rights Reserved for Alexa O’Brien

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