The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 24, 2001

Open Source Intelligence a ‘force multiplier’
Prashant Bakshi

INTELLIGENCE agencies have for long relied on SIGINT (Signal Intelligence), HUMINT (Human Intelligence) and COMINT (Communication Intelligence) for their information-gathering requirements. In recent times, ‘open sources’ have evolved tremendously to the extent that they are seriously considered a source of intelligence, hence the term OSCINT (Open Source Intelligence).

This can be attributed mainly to the proliferation of information and communication technologies, especially the Internet. Information earlier considered as classified is now widely available — and that too at a mere click of the mouse. For instance, during the recent US-China spy plane debacle, one could effortlessly download satellite images of the EP-3 surveillance aircraft parked at the Lingshui military airfield from the Janes defence website ( Furthermore, one could also learn from the website about a recent upgradation, SSIP (Sensor System Improvement Program), carried out on the aircraft, making it the most sophisticated airborne electronic surveillance asset in the US Navy. With such easy access to vital information, intelligence agencies are slowly but surely accruing more importance to OSCINT.

So, what exactly does OSCINT mean? The US intelligence community has aptly defined the term:


"By Open Source we refer to publicly available information appearing in print or electronic form. Open Source information may be transmitted through radio, television, and newspapers, or it may be distributed by commercial databases, electronic mail networks, or portable electronic media such as CD-ROMs. It may be disseminated to a broad public, as are the mass media, or to a more select audience, such as grey literature, which includes conference proceedings, company shareholder reports, and local telephone directories. Whatever form it takes, Open Source involves no information that is: classified at its origin; is subject to proprietary constraints (other than copyright); is the product of sensitive contacts with US or foreign persons; or is acquired through clandestine or covert means."

OSCINT, however, applies the same fundamentals of traditional intelligence — sifting and analysing information to metamorphose it into unclassified intelligence. Often, such intelligence proves highly invaluable when integrated and validated with other sources, and of course, it needs to be finally given the strategic perspective by experts in the related subject. The advantages of OSCINT are immense and, no wonder, countries like the USA, Israel, Sweden and South Africa have adapted well to this form of intelligence and refer to it as a ‘force multiplier’.

The common perception that OSCINT is a recent phenomena centered around the Internet is not quite true. In fact, intelligence agencies have always acknowledged the potential of Open Source Information. Take the case of FAS (Federation of American Scientists), a privately funded organisation, which was originally founded in 1945 as the Federation of Atomic Scientists. Over a period of time, it has evolved into one of the most comprehensive resources for Open Source Intelligence — conducting analysis and doing advocacy on a wide range of issues, which include science and technology, national security, nuclear weapons, arms sales, biological hazards and space policy. If you are searching for information on Pakistan’s nuclear reactors or an update on the Chinese cruise missile programme, a visit to their website ( would in all certainty overwhelm you with the kind of information that is available.

Even during the height of the Cold War, some 20 per cent of the information collected by the Americans on the erstwhile Soviet Union came from open sources. A case in point is the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), a US government office chartered to monitor foreign (non-US) open source information for use by the US Government.

The FBIS offers an extensive, in-depth collection of translations and transcriptions of Open Source Information from around the world on diverse topics that include military affairs, politics, environment, societal issues, economics, and science and technology.

Today, there is no dearth of OSCINT sources. While most of them (see table) can be accessed on the web, companies like Janes, apart from having an online presence, also publish periodical reports and reviews that are available on subscription. In fact, the Janes annual books on aircraft, ships and weapon systems are nothing short of defence encyclopaedias that are extremely popular in defence libraries all over the world.

Amongst recent OSCINT sources, Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting) and OSS (Open Source Solutions) deserve due mention. While Stratfor started off as a think-tank; it earned due recognition during the conflict between NATO and Yugoslavia with more than 2 million people visiting the Stratfor website. Based in Austin, it has an experienced staff who strive hard to combine intelligence analysis with the rigours of journalism. Subscribers to Stratfor have a host of options — daily global updates to monthly reports — to choose from, and more so at the convenience of receiving it on one’s desktop computer as an e-mail.

The OSS, on the other hand, is one of the world’s first information merchant banks’ practicing information arbitrage and delivering Open Source Intelligence consulting and services. Interestingly, the ‘OSS has a unique feature called MindLink that allows members to join discussion lists dedicated to intelligence related topics. It also provides access to over 5,000 pages of material and two publications, a monthly OSS Notices and, a quarterly Global Intelligence Journal.

In the Indian context, the concept of OSCINT is still evolving; there are a few defence-related websites — and — that have sufficient ground to cover and be in the same league as their western counterparts. However, there are some news services like POT (Public Opinion Trends Analyses and News Services) which cover various issues in South Asia and publish bulletins on a regular basis.

Surprisingly, one hears more about occurrences of corporate espionage than military espionage, which can be attributed to the cutthroat competition among business conglomerates. This has led to a spurt in companies dealing with business and economic intelligence.

Future indicators convey a vast potential for OSCINT. However, it is unlikely that it would ever replace traditional clandestine techniques — spies and satellites. Open Source has a distinct advantage, that it is always readily available, as in the case of the Gulf War wherein CNN newscasts were potentially more useful to the first US planes over Baghdad since classified information did not reach on time. Technology is changing at an amazing pace and hopefully advances in artificial intelligence techniques and development of information agents or ‘bots’ might make sifting and analysing data simpler and less time consuming. Whatever form it may take, technology would always be the means to an end; and not the end in itself.

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