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09 November 2007

Implications of publishing open source IMINT analysis

Some time ago, we added the excellent IMINT & Analysis blog to our sidebar for further watching. The effort is a superb example of the quality of contributions that can be made from unclassified, open source research through the application of basic analytic tradecraft. It pains us that this was not more routinely done by others in the space years ago. The technologies have been in place for some time – all that was lacking was the right mind and a willingness to devote the energies such a project would require.

To be sure, individual findings from selected research – such as Chechen urban battle damage assessments, PRC submarine activities, and the recent destruction of the Syrian suspected nuclear facility have all been chronicled using imagery. But the systematic assessment of multiple imagery sets in order to produce and publish something akin to finished geospatial intelligence is another matter entirely. Frankly, all that is lacking is cross reference to BE numbers, else one could easily mistake this as the output of a government system stripped of its markings and logos.

On the one hand, this is an unprecedented teaching opportunity for new analysts coming out of the academic side of the house. Geospatial intelligence has long been among the hardest of disciplines to inculcate within the student cohort, and many promising analysts have no doubt been steered in other directions simply by the lack of availability of resources and expertise to inspire them to pursue the path.

However, the wider availability of such products does raise concerns regarding the potential to feed adversary denial and deception efforts. High resolution commercial imagery has long carried the risk that adversaries without access to, or understanding of, the true nature of imagery collection would evolve more rapidly means to defeat such systems based on new commercial products. These risks are magnified when one can begin to glimpse the thought processes and tradecraft applied to imagery intelligence problems over the course of the production cycle.

We believe that the publishing of these kinds of finished products on an open blog such as IMINT and Analysis is not itself the problem. The real challenge arises out of the changing nature of the information environment itself. When the potential for such developments exist, they will inevitably arise in one form or another. It is better to consider their implications from a perspective of open discussion, than to attempt to second guess the effects of such activities in another context – for example perhaps that of an adversary’s intelligence service’s open source unit conducting their own version of a Red Cell assessment.

There will never be another day in the 21st century when the adversary will have less access to what was once the most sophisticated of the 20th century intelligence technical collection techniques than they do at present. The means by which such technical means may be defeated will only be easier as time passes, technology grows more common and less expensive, and the understanding of these systems from civil applications and open sources grows more sophisticated. The denial and deception problem - applied in the context of national technical means - will only get harder. The challenge to the Intelligence Community is to accelerate the pace of innovation in order to overcome the adversary’s attempts no matter how much easier the deceiver’s task may become in the future. Towards that end, we strongly suspect that the robust discussion of analytic tradecraft – including counter-deception – will do more to advance that innovation within the intelligence profession than in a closed and narrow conversation from a limited range of perspectives.

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