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Digital Open Source Intelligence and International Security: A Primer

This report explores some of the dilemmas and deadlocks regarding digital surveillance, its extent in democracies and autocracies and how it interacts with the ‘surveillance-industrial complex’. By Professor Hamid Akin Ünver, Kadir Has University; Oxford University.


Digital surveillance is a growing global concern, following the Snowden revelations, subsequent national security leaks and the most recent controversy regarding Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign. This report explores some of the dilemmas and deadlocks regarding digital surveillance, its extent in democracies and autocracies and how it interacts with the ‘surveillance-industrial complex’, SIC. SIC is an often-overlooked aspect in the surveillance-privacy debate as it is not necessarily intentions that render surveillance problematic, but its business model. In all political systems there is a secrecy, transparency and surveillance cost which drives a country’s willingness to hoard secrets (citizen data, international data transfers) or to disclose some key political information to the public for the sake of legitimacy.

A key component of the surveillance-privacy debate in digital space is the technology race, which drives states’ unwillingness to disclose policy information due to the increasing costs of acquiring key intelligence in a networked society. Ever-increasing methods and technologies of surveillance and circumvention alike is one of the central reasons on why efforts to regulate and safeguards surveillance mechanisms fail: they simply cannot keep up with the technologically proficient intelligence agencies, nor the ever-resourceful citizen-driven circumvention tools. Good examples in some European countries have focused mainly on making surveillance oversight transparent, while establishing hybrid safeguard mechanisms that are established by proficient technical experts, in addition to bureaucrats or MPs.

The failure of surveillance transparency moves largely stem from this technological backwardness of safeguard and oversight mechanisms, as a result of which the public devises its own mechanisms to circumvent, mask or monitor how states manage and process digital intelligence and citizen data. However, especially with the growing threat of terrorism, far-right radicalization and extremist groups emerging in western societies, surveillance is viewed not only politically necessary, but also electorally popular. To that end, public opinion is not unitary and it is itself divided between pro-surveillance and pro-privacy groups. Ultimately, democracies have to come up with the surveillance-privacy balance that conforms to the country’s political culture, but also to the universal human rights. The task of oversight in this context is heavy: it has to continuously chase the executive and intelligence community in detecting

abuse and excess, while remaining technologically proficient at the same time.

Keywords: Open Source Intelligence, OSINT, Political Science, International Relations, Technology, Data Science

1. Introduction

Intelligence is a key and continually changing practice of statecraft. While this practice has historically been dominated by the states, merchants, and the clergy, late-20th century has witnessed the privatization of intelligence and surveillance equipment and broadening of the concept of intelligence. Today, Internet, social media, smartphones and data analytics have all contributed to the greater exposure and dissemination of critical information about emergencies and crisis events, thereby contributing to the faster travelling of news, secrets and leaks. Broadly speaking, intelligence is the practice of methodical collection and analysis of critical information for the purposes of security, or advantage. Although used synonymously with espionage, or covert operations, intelligence is mostly focused on the methodical collection, processing and analysis of information that is available and ‘out there’, rather than using clandestine methods to gain such information through stealing. This drive towards the collection of more and better information has been the founding block of national security, well-evidenced in successive political treatises of statecraft, since the oftquoted 13th chapter of the Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ - The Use of Spies: ‘Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.’ (1)

The traditional understanding of intelligence is the methodical collection of high-value information in a way that yields comparative advantage to decision makers.(2) Such information can be on a foreign country’s capabilities, general global events, or a country’s domestic affairs. While most people tend to equate intelligence with military or security affairs, this is a very narrow definition that omits the value of intelligence in trade, finance, culture and educational affairs to render longer-term advantage during peace time. Although this traditional definition of intelligence didn’t become obsolete, it was broadened through the advances in technology and more importantly, through the wide availability of such technology to wider audiences.(3) Through history, mastery of intelligence required mastery of both technology and the study of human behavior, both of which eventually rendered intelligence as a force multiplier of other functions (military, political, economic). In addition to its traditional function of enabling less miscalculated decisions, the audience of modern intelligence is growing beyond state or corporation leadership, and is expanding to the public. It is no longer a mere warning mechanism, but also a know-how reservoir and improvisation pool to resolve matters in times of unexpected crises.(4)

Despite being one of the most exciting fields of inquiry in diplomacy, security and politics, the study of intelligence has consistently been difficult due to the secretive nature of the practice. Methodical information collection, establishment and maintenance of collection networks and a reliable ‘information pipeline’ have been some of the most crucial areas of security, without a matching scientific and scholarly rigor.(5) This was mostly due to the unavailability of historical intelligence records, or study data beyond a narrow intelligence community. However, the field has gradually opened to civilian scholarly expertise mainly in the United States, towards the end of the Cold War. This owed largely to the 1980s declassification of World War 2 intelligence files in the US and the UK, the most significant of which belonged to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and British signals intelligence files.(6) Previously only able to work with a small collection of cleared documents, civilian intelligence scholars now had a far larger data pool to work with. With this data availability came some of the first theories on the changing function of intelligence in national security and how it could adapt to changing technologies and communication methods.

Broadly speaking, intelligence implies four main processes. The first is collection; primarily, a state’s capacity to reach, sort and collect meaningful, high-value information related to security and/or comparative policy advantage. While historically, intelligence collection capacity overwhelmingly required a wide human reach and physical access network, with 20th century, it also began to heavily include technological capacity and continuous adaptation to technical advances in communication and informatics. The second process is transmission, which involves the establishment and diversification of reliable channels of critical information flows from the target area, back to the intelligence core and from there, across domestic security institutions. Intelligence transmission requires both a highly qualified human trust network that forms an information extraction and delivery chain from the ground to the agency, as well as digital transmission structures that enable a fast delivery of digital intelligence. In intelligence types that deal with digital data - imagery, audio, text - transmission requires high levels of encryption and decryption to secure storage and transfers of such data. Third is awareness, which implies the intelligence community’s understanding of the decisionmakers’ needs and decision-makers’ understanding of the value of intelligence in key decision environments. In organizational cultures where the priorities of the intelligence community and the decision-making cohort are mismatched, or the political leadership doesn’t trust the intelligence community, the awareness component is jeopardized, preventing efficient processing and transmission of key intelligence in crisis scenarios. Finally, agencies have to have the ability of ‘selective deception’, where it can reliably mislead competitors into wrong or missing information. This is necessary to retain comparative advantage against other intelligence competitors, by consistently distracting them into wasting resources and time on the ground.(7)

Intelligence also varies across cultures, since countries have different threat perception, information seeking and secrecy processing dynamics. To that end, intelligence should not be thought of as a monolithic and standard practice; rather, there are politically and culturally contingent ways of maximising decision-making advantage using a multitude of information gathering mechanisms. A primary determinant of intelligence culture is regime type,(8) where democracies, hybrid states and authoritarian governments process and manage information through different bureaucratic mechanisms, as well as legal and legislative oversight mechanisms.(9) In addition, democratic intelligence services tend to have greater autonomy compared to those of authoritarian states, and also tend to have a more merit based recruitment and promotion scheme, allowing such agencies to act with greater legitimacy and a more diverse skillset against a multitude of threats. Strong oversight mechanisms also tend to minimize corruption, resource waste and mismanagement – allowing democratically checked intelligence agencies to enjoy greater political legitimacy domestically.10 Furthermore, authoritarian states tend to inflate domestic and foreign threats, forcing wasteful intelligence agencies to spread too thin across multiple, obscure information fronts. Another determinant is institutional history and culture.11 The intelligence practices and territorial awareness of post-imperial states (i.e. states that were once at the core of a former empire) and those that aren’t, are markedly different. Inheriting a longer tradition of intelligence, such post-imperial states tend to operate across a wider territorial space, usually in the current states of their former imperial territories.12 Finally, proximity to active conflict is crucial. States that are fighting, or adjacent to an active ongoing domestic conflict, operate on a different institutional culture compared to states that don’t. Most organizational and bureaucratic models of intelligence differ according to the country’s engagement with active or frozen conflicts, and/or participation in foreign peace operations.

Suggested Citation:

Unver, Hamid Akin, Digital Open Source Intelligence and International Security: A Primer (July 15, 2018). EDAM Research Reports, Cyber Governance and Digital Democracy 2018/8. Available at SSRN:


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