Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) refers to the distinct tradecraft through which bits of information scattered across public sources such as the World Wide Web, social media networks, and publications etc. are compiled and then processed into a variety of products for end-users. In several instances, actionable leads are also acquired.
The most advantageous aspects of OSINT are its low cost and risk compared to Human Intelligence (HUMINT), Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). Previously, OSINT was treated as a compliment to “genuine” intelligence collected through traditional means, but with the rising popularity of social media platforms, the information mosaic has significantly expanded. Statistics reveal that Pakistan had approximately 72 million Internet users (as of June 2019), 32 million Facebook subscribers (as of December 2018) and 1.2 million Twitter users (as of January 2019). There are also countless individuals who use TikTok, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram.
Social media platforms assume greater prominence in Pakistan as they allow cheap access to promote dissent and subversion. It is a dilemma for law enforcement agencies mandated for interior duties as also uniformed personnel tasked with national defence. Malignant actors propagate hostile narratives in the exploitation of the information space available to them while others use social media for command and control purposes (recruitment, operational direction and private communication with assets online as well as on the ground).
Social media platforms assume greater prominence in Pakistan as they allow cheap access to promote dissent and subversion.
Despite its very cheap financial implications, the irony is that OSINT is still under-explored in Pakistan. The examples illustrated below present a few possibilities tailored specifically in the Pakistani context, which can assist state authorities in maintaining public order and improving national security.
Proactive Threat Identification
In under-developed countries like Pakistan, few are bothered about staying “a step ahead” rather than just “reacting” to incidents. This culture of passivity has adversely impacted law and order as well as national security.
The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi through patronage of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) developed an “Advanced Application for Social Media Analytics (AASMA)” which is being used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies both at the union (central) as well state levels since 2016.
Although “AASMA” is used freely by Indian authorities, similar commercial software solutions carry financial risks and cannot overcome functional restrictions such as the quantity of content that can be recalled due to Application Programming Interface (API) restrictions or anomalous behaviour detections by the data host (Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.). Moreover, Pakistan-origin IPs are viewed suspiciously by APIs releasing data streams, and therefore in the broader technological purview, only limited content is available for automated extraction.
This culture of passivity has adversely impacted law and order as well as national security.
These APIs mostly tend to automate processes and techniques which can be performed manually. In such a scenario, training human operators in basic threat identification techniques will not incur any negative consequences, neither is any technical expertise required to learn them except basic knowledge of how to operate a computer and use the Internet.
Real-Time Incidence Monitoring and Response
Protests, demonstrations, and other public activities of social impact value are regular features in Pakistan, particularly disruptive programmes organised by mobs with violent tendencies. Elements involved in these activities rely on social media to popularise their agenda and coordinate amongst each other, often through organised campaigning under a unique hashtag.
OSINT can enable extraction of content from specific geolocation so that respective zonal authorities in defined jurisdictions can be vigilant about developments and alert field authorities accordingly. Moreover, all these updates can be fused by a central authority to develop a composite picture mapping the gradual evolution of such activities.
Cases compiled during this process can help develop pre-emptive measures and contingency plans against planned violence. Consequently, they provide excellent learning material for future preparedness.
Various political parties, marketing agencies and even sectarian organisations aggressively publish their narratives to favourably influence public opinion, mostly on Twitter using hashtags. In Pakistan’s case, malicious and aggressive campaigns launched by information warfare elements based in India are also a recurring nuisance.
Through focused analysis, the propagation pattern of these campaigns can be tracked to identify the “originator” (considered as the earliest source of a hashtag) and a chain of influential “distributors.” These accounts can then be placed under a watchlist by relevant authorities.
Cyberpsychology is a sub-discipline of psychology concerned with interactions between humans and digital technologies such as the web and social media. As humans have the privilege to mask their identities or behave differently online, cyberpsychology is the process through which these behavioural patterns can be analysed.
Examining the online, publicly-visible conduct of individuals and collectively-represented group entities can leave traces of behavioural patterns for the further psychological examination which complements profiling efforts in parallel.
Fraudsters, scammers, and spies are often cleared through routine vetting channels on account of apparently normal observations. Similarly, state authorities enter into contractual agreements with certain commercial vendors whose financial history might appear legitimate on the outset but have shady dealings in cyberspace.
What is usually overlooked is that OSINT can offer unique insights about an individual or entity’s standing through tracking and examination of their digital footprints. These checks, carried out through open sources, do not violate the subject’s personal privacy while also assuring integrity.
It is generally assumed that exploitation of OSINT requires expensive and foreign-origin software solutions (“tools”), whereas, the foundation of open source information collection is based on specialist “techniques.” As technology keeps evolving and new restrictions on automated data extraction emerge, the safest bet is to encourage personnel to update their methods accordingly.
A cost-benefit analysis will always prompt investment in trained human resources, not machines. OSINT is one such domain where reliance on commercial products can be kept near-zero.
The writer is a freelance national security and strategic affairs commentator whose writings have appeared in South Asia Journal, The Nation, Russian International Affairs Council, The Frontier Post and Pakistan Observer, to name a few. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk