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How Open-Source Information Is Changing Intelligence


The global intelligence community is rapidly changing as new technology allows ordinary citizens to collect and analyze open-source intelligence. Despite the good that has already come from evidence compiled by nonstate actors, open-source intelligence comes with some risks. Mitigating those risks will require action from both open-source intelligence NGOs and government agencies.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the advantages of open-source intelligence?
  2. What are the risks of open-source intelligence?

Additional resources:

  • Read “Crowdsourcing and the Mobs,” by Amy Zegart. Available here.
  • Read about Amy Zegart’s new book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence, here.
  • Watch “Why Cyber Is Different,” with Amy Zegart, via PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

Social media, the internet, and even new low-cost commercial satellites have drastically changed how intelligence is collected and analyzed.

Tracking criminals and adversaries abroad used to fall to governments, which had a near-monopoly over the collection and analysis of essential information.

Today, new technologies enable ordinary citizens to collect and analyze intelligence, too—sometimes more easily, more quickly, and better than governments.

Following the January 6th assault on the Capitol Building, a quarter million digital tips were sent to the FBI, leading to hundreds of arrests.

Across the globe, nonstate “citizen sleuths” compiled evidence that President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens.

But because open source intelligence is open to anyone, it comes with some risk. A thin line separates the wisdom of crowds from the danger of mobs. Mitigating those risks requires a few reforms.

NGOs that collect and analyze open-source information must develop shared ethical norms, establish quality standards, and institutionalize best practices in order to reduce the risk of errors or other bad outcomes.

And although some existing intelligence agencies have begun their own open-source initiatives, the U.S. government should create a new agency for open-source intelligence collection and analysis.

Finally, governments and private individuals need to build closer partnerships to make it easier to collaborate and share open-source intelligence.