The Economist: “The great hope of the 1990s and 2000s was that the internet would be a force for openness and freedom. As Stewart Brand, a pioneer of online communities, put it: “Information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.” It was not to be. Bad information often drove out good. Authoritarian states co-opted the technologies that were supposed to loosen their grip. Information was wielded as a weapon of war. Amid this disappointment one development offers cause for fresh hope: the emerging era of open-source intelligence (osint).
New sensors, from humdrum dashboard cameras to satellites that can see across the electromagnetic spectrum, are examining the planet and its people as never before. The information they collect is becoming cheaper. Satellite images cost several thousand dollars 20 years ago, today they are often provided free and are of incomparably higher quality. A photograph of any spot on Earth, of a stricken tanker or the routes taken by joggers in a city is available with a few clicks. And online communities and collaborative tools, like Slack, enable hobbyists and experts to use this cornucopia of information to solve riddles and unearth misdeeds with astonishing speed.
Human Rights Watch has analysed satellite imagery to document ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Nanosatellites tag the automatic identification system of vessels that are fishing illegally. Amateur sleuths have helped Europol, the European Union’s policing agency, investigate child sexual exploitation by identifying geographical clues in the background of photographs. Even hedge funds routinely track the movements of company executives in private jets, monitored by a web of amateurs around the world, to predict mergers and acquisitions.
osint thus bolsters civil society, strengthens law enforcement and makes markets more efficient. It can also humble some of the world’s most powerful countries.
In the face of vehement denials from the Kremlin, Bellingcat, an investigative group, meticulously demonstrated Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight mh17 over Ukraine in 2014, using little more than a handful of photographs, satellite images and elementary geometry. It went on to identify the Russian agents who attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in England in 2018. amateur analysts and journalists used osint to piece together the full extent of Uyghur internment camps in Xinjiang. In recent weeks researchers poring over satellite imagery have spotted China constructing hundreds of nuclear-missile silos in the desert.
Such an emancipation of information promises to have profound effects. The decentralised and egalitarian nature of osint erodes the power of traditional arbiters of truth and falsehood, in particular governments and their spies and soldiers. For those like this newspaper who believe that secrecy can too easily be abused by people in power, osint is welcome….(More)”.