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Pivotal Moment for OSINT

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On Monday, May 2, the Intelligence and National Security Foundation (INSF) and ClearanceJobs.com hosted “Open Source…Not the Same Old Conversation,” a virtual discussion on the challenges and opportunities around open source intelligence. Underwritten by Avantus, the webinar, the first of INSF’s three-part “Future of the IC Workforce” multimedia series, featured The Hon. Ellen McCarthy, President of the Truth in Media Cooperative, and Ms. Patrice Tibbs, Chief of Community Open Source at CIA. Mr. Matt Scott, Senior Vice President and Mission Technology Strategist at Avantus, moderated the panel.

 

Ms. Tibbs kicked off the program by noting that much of the IC’s information comes from unclassified sources but that cultural barriers prevent this open-source material from being used to its fullest potential. She said if the IC does not realize OSINT’s value soon, it will lose out on hordes of actionable intelligence. Part of Ms. Tibbs’ job is to break those barriers by finding ways to integrate OSINT into the traditional intelligence cycle and pinpointing tools, mechanisms, and training opportunities for intelligence professionals to become more comfortable with OSINT.

Ms. McCarthy similarly noted that the IC’s inability to keep up with the volume of data – and the technologies needed to sort through it – is a challenge to the national security mission. She said that part of the solution is to build stronger relationships with the private sector, which has developed tools and technologies that can make data collection and analysis easier. Ms. McCarthy acknowledged this would require a fundamental shift in the IC’s business model because the old approach of protecting sources and keeping secrets is no longer viable. The IC will need to become more comfortable with sharing information outside its own walls and relying on information from nontraditional sources.

Both panelists found that there is little consistency in how OSINT is integrated across the IC. Ms. Tibbs mentioned that, because every agency has its own way of using OSINT, it is difficult to pull it all under one umbrella. CIA Director Bill Burns, who is the open-source community functional manager, is trying to create a healthy OSINT governance structure and promote common information sharing and tradecraft standards. Ms. McCarthy added that consistent leadership on OSINT is difficult when most leaders are political appointees. She advocated for a fixed-term for IC leadership across the board, which may provide stable awareness of OSINT’s value.

The panel ended on an optimistic note. Ms. Tibbs is hopeful that the IC is moving in the right direction toward OSINT, even if she is frustrated by the speed at which this is happening. She said that IC leadership recognizes OSINT’s value and that analysts are beginning to look for ways to integrate it into their workflows. Ms. McCarthy agreed, saying that the administration’s willingness to share declassified information with the Ukrainian government last month is a fruitful step forward. She is also confident that the public and private sectors can create a collaborative relationship around OSINT that is based on mutual trust and facilitates the adoption of cutting-edge tools and technologies.