OSINT Blog / Post

June 19, 2024

Actioning Publicly Available Information: The Top 5 Obstacles Facing The Intelligence Community

For intelligence professionals, incorporating publicly available data and information into their analysis is vital. The modern operating environment is awash in digital content from a wide array of sources, ranging from freely available information on social media platforms, blogs, and news articles to commercially available data requiring specialized tools and resources to access. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is the process of effectively collecting, processing, and analyzing these diverse streams of public data to yield crucial insights.

This amalgamation of data sources provides invaluable insights for a huge range of intelligence applications, including geopolitical risk identification, critical response, force protection, counterintelligence, disinformation, identity validation, and more. As the intelligence community (IC) recognizes these opportunities, OSINT is becoming the intelligence discipline of first resort. Last month, the Director of National Intelligence published its first IC OSINT Strategy, demonstrating the intelligence community’s commitment to fully embracing publicly available information (PAI). 

However, intelligence agencies have encountered significant challenges when integrating OSINT into their existing workflows. Understanding and addressing these hurdles is key to strengthening OSINT integration going forward. This article explores five major obstacles they face and discusses strategies to overcome them.

1) Resistance to Change

One of the biggest barriers to OSINT adoption is cultural resistance within agencies and intelligence units. Traditionally, federal intelligence agencies rely heavily on classified and human intelligence sources to gather information on potential threats and adversaries. Analysts tend to place greater trust in these conventional intelligence channels, which they’ve successfully used for decades. Because of this, some intelligence analysts and leaders are reluctant to embrace OSINT. They’re often accustomed to their historical methods, creating an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mindset.

While recent major events like Russia's invasion of Ukraine have demonstrated how OSINT can provide accurate information faster than human sources—especially with things like troop movements or disinformation—engrained preferences persist. This cultural issue has slowed certain adoption of OSINT practices and open-source workflows across the IC and federal entities.

To overcome this challenge, the IC must recognize OSINT's value as a force multiplier instead of a replacement for other methods. Encouraging leaders and analysts to embrace OSINT as a complementary tool may involve targeted training programs, workshops, and awareness campaigns.

2) Building Workforce Expertise

Compounding the cultural challenge is a widespread lack of systematic OSINT training and expertise development, which limits the effective application of OSINT. Few analysts enter their roles with formal OSINT education, and on-the-job training opportunities are limited. Agencies typically assign OSINT collection as a secondary duty rather than a primary skillset to cultivate.

As a result, OSINT knowledge tends to be isolated and siloed, limiting how it can integrate into existing planning and intelligence processes. Senior personnel are more likely to discount OSINT sources like social media, seeing them as frivolous rather than essential intelligence channels. To harness OSINT's full benefits, agencies must not only train OSINT skills but also understand why it’s vital to the IC’s mission.

Harnessing OSINT's full potential requires more than collecting public data—it demands specialized training, professional development programs, and capacity-building initiatives. Personnel with the skills, expertise, and technology to navigate the complexities of online information effectively enhance their investigative proficiency. This way, the IC can improve intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination.

3) Standardizing Tradecraft

The absence of IC-wide OSINT tradecraft principles creates another major friction point. Without consensus around best practices, individual organizations have trouble uniformly leveraging OSINT. This is particularly challenging for collectively processing and capturing PAI, with multiple agencies often processing the same data, causing redundancy and inefficiency.  

Currently, agencies independently develop internal policies, training standards, and legal compliance frameworks around OSINT. This disorder hampers unity of effort and inter-agency collaboration. Analysts are often fearful of intelligence oversight rules and of over-collecting info, so they minimize OSINT activity to avoid potential compliance issues.

Federal intelligence agencies must adopt, update, and communicate uniform internal policies regulating analysts' responsibilities and establish procedures to empower their use of OSINT and share OSINT with other agencies to resolve inconsistencies.

4) Handling Large Amounts of Data and Avoiding Misinformation

When leveraging PAI, analysts immediately confront the enormity of scanning vast environments for relevant, credible, and actionable information. The sheer volume of potential OSINT sources is staggering and can cause information overload and analysis paralysis. Intelligence units accustomed to dealing with curated, classified information may struggle to filter noise and identify actionable intelligence amidst the deluge of online content.

Manually filtering out irrelevant information is unsustainable at scale, requiring automated solutions to refine results based on keywords and locations. By investing in technologies that employ machine learning and AI algorithms, agencies can streamline data collection, enabling analysts to focus on extracting relevant insights.

Even with technology, assessing the credibility and veracity of open-source information is incredibly complex. Misinformation and disinformation are rampant. The tools and resources needed to confirm OSINT often differ from those used to authenticate traditional intel. This means that the IC can face difficulties verifying information obtained through OSINT. Developing skills to validate OSINT while avoiding exploitation by adversary disinformation is challenging but imperative. Training the workforce to detect disinformation is vital when introducing OSINT tools.

5) Finding the Right Tools for the Job

The disparate, fragmented nature of existing OSINT tools and platforms inhibits seamless data integration and analysis. Most tools are too specialized for discrete functions like username searching or data capture. The lack of access to comprehensive, government-approved OSINT technology suites for the entire OSINT cycle prevents access to unified data streams and decreases efficiency.  

Budget constraints or a lack of market knowledge also hinder the acquisition of robust OSINT tools. While many government entities can access cutting-edge commercial solutions like Skopenow, others still need to cope with legacy tools in manual research environments ill-suited for big data requirements. Federal agencies cannot rely on manual processes and free tools; they must invest in automated solutions that empower analysts with the necessary data to generate actionable, timely OSINT.

Overcoming the Challenges

While integrating OSINT into traditional intelligence units and operations poses several challenges, agencies can overcome these obstacles through strategic planning, training, and technology that streamlines data collection and unlocks OSINT's benefits.

In an era defined by complexity and uncertainty, integrating OSINT into existing workflows—including both commercial and PAI sources—is central to enhancing national security and defense capabilities. By embracing OSINT as a valuable source to augment traditional intelligence gathering, IC teams can enhance situational awareness, anticipate emerging threats, and protect national interests in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

At Skopenow, we remain committed to supporting government agencies in advancing their OSINT capabilities to protect our nation. Our platform empowers analysts to efficiently sift through massive datasets, identify relevant information, and rapidly generate actionable insights to bolster national security efforts. By automating labor-intensive and time-consuming manual research, Skopenow allows analysts to focus on analysis and interpretation rather than data gathering.

Join over 1,500 organizations, including numerous large government and law enforcement agencies, that rely on Skopenow to make better decisions. Schedule a personalized demo today at www.skopenow.com/try to explore our platform's transformative potential.