Intelligence official: ‘Incredibly powerful insight’ drawn from open source data
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Information of great value to the intelligence community doesn’t have to be “something that comes off of a pristine satellite” with multiple layers of classification, said Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Answers to some of the toughest problems that intelligence agencies are trying to solve today come from open source data, Ashley said last week at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual symposium. “As long as you have a trained analyst that understands the source of the information, you can tip and cue it with other classified information,” he said. “That’s an incredibly powerful insight we are just starting to tap into.”
I spoke about this topic recently with analysts from Radiant Solutions, a Maxar-owned company that specializes in the application of geospatial and open source intelligence.
“With what’s available in open sources, you can get an 80 percent solution,” said Andrew Huneycutt, who worked on a project to show how open source data could be used to disrupt Russia’s influence operations and propaganda efforts in the Baltic Region.
“The value of open source is speed,” he said. “If you have the data and the tools. you’re so much faster in getting your solution out than the classified channels.”
Radiant analysts used DigitalGlobe’s satellite imagery and the company’s “Human Landscape” product to paint a picture of the demographics, infrastructure and social vulnerabilities of three countries that are targets of Russia’s influence: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. “This tool helps evaluate the effectiveness of Russia’s new generation warfare and guides counter-influence operations,” said Steve Yeager, a former Army intelligence analyst who also worked on the project.
Human Landscape currently covers 52 countries, said Yeager. Radiant is marketing the service to the U.S. government but also to corporations trying to understand the lay of the land before they set up operations in a foreign country. “A lot of companies out there and intelligence services spend a lot of time trying to acquire clean data,” he said. “We help bridge that gap.” The database includes over 1,000 sources and there are about 60 layers of metadata for every country, such as infrastructure, demographics, religious institutions, ethnicity, medical facilities, educational institutions, transportation networks, communications services, foreign investment and foreign aid, border crossings, and weather trends.
COUNTER MESSAGING Russia is a hot topic these days. “We took a different angle,” said Yeager. “If Russia were to make a play in the region, other than positioning military assets, what are some things that we could visualize for their efforts? We looked at the populations that they would need to influence — where the Russian-speaking populations are, and where these populations might be vulnerable due to lack of employment, for example. We layer these factors on top of each other.” Another layer to look at is political influence, such as parties that have some affiliation with Russia. “Some regions had all these factors that made them likely targets of a Russian invasion,” Yeager said.
This tool also can be used to counter propaganda and “fake news” campaigns, he said. “Where are the people you need to message to make an impact?” is the central question. “We look at specific media outlets, at surveys of where viewership leans and tell you where to place certain messages, and know how to shape those messages,” Yeager said. “This is a big component of counter-messaging.”
Huneycutt said the U.S. military’s information operations can benefit greatly from open source data. “We have lagged in understanding the cultural components to things and in drawing a holistic picture of a population,” he said. “But even once you know the population you have to identify the vehicles to get out our message: It is radio? A certain TV channel? There’s a whole list of things that we have to be smart on. … We are not as good as Russia in that regard, but we’re catching up quickly.”
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