Unleashing Open Source Intelligence for UK National Security (Guest blog by PUBLIC)
Publicly-available information (PAI), such as commercially available satellite imagery, plane-tracking data, or patent and technical reports, forms the majority of the information used to develop today’s actionable national security insights for UK government and defence decision-makers. Open source intelligence (OSINT) - the collection and analysis of data gathered from PAI - is not a new phenomenon. However, the breadth of the current application of OSINT across the UK national security community has grown exponentially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. OSINT is now used to add to anticipatory intelligence, as an evidence base for the strategic communication of declassified assessments with the public, and to counter hostile information operations.
A currently fragmented UK landscape
PUBLIC’s work with practitioners (link) and RUSI’s recent research (link) has found that the UK’s rapid adoption of OSINT has led to fragmented pockets of world-class OSINT capability across central government departments and the national security community. The UK has established pockets of world-class OSINT capability but analyst teams range widely in their capability maturity across Whitehall. This fragmentation has limited the sharing of OSINT-related technology, tradecraft, training, standards, and data. The full potential of PAI can only be unleashed where there is secure, cross-department data sharing through standardised structures which can support OSINT.
Building standardised OSINT support structures
In the context of the refresh of the Integrated Review, the UK national security community now has the opportunity to invest in standardised OSINT support structures - equipped with integrated systems, processes, and common tech to harness the power of this unique form of data. This would mark a critical step in realising the UK’s ambitions to be an innovative and data-driven science and technology cyber power.
The national security community must take a careful and considered approach to standing up supportive structures around OSINT. Two key components include:
Embracing lessons learnt from the establishment of OSINT structures internationally
Open source is not a tightly integrated intelligence discipline, and the UK national security community must ensure any new OSINT structures support rather than hamper existing fractured capabilities. In particular, the UK should take into account the successes and failures of the Open Source Center (renamed the Open Source Enterprise in 2015) in the US.
Mitigating legal and ethical barriers to implementation
Legal and ethical frameworks, which take into account existing and future legislative regimes and private sector best practice, should be established to ensure open source investigations are carried out in accordance with the law and with due regard for security concerns.
Building standardised OSINT support structures would also provide benefits outside of national security, establishing a model for other civil departments to support their utilisation of PAI e.g. tracking climate degradation (BEIS), gathering evidence for justice and accountability (MoJ/CPS), or monitoring illegal migration routes (HO).
INDEX: A case study for unlocking OSINT
PUBLIC have supported the Cabinet Office to launch the Information & Data Exchange (INDEX), an exciting new initiative focused on improving the way in which the intelligence assessment community consumes, stores and shares OSINT assessments from across HMG. INDEX will include a secure cloud that allows centralised access to government analytical reports; the best platforms and tools within government; and curated information and data from the public domain.
INDEX showcases how the national security community gains tremendous value from integrated information and data sharing structures. Where otherwise fragmented government departments and organisations may hamper impact. There is much more to be done to expand the UK national security community’s OSINT capabilities, but learning from case studies like INDEX will certainly prove an essential part of these efforts.