For decades America's spies cultivated the idea that they knew things no one else did and got the information from sources no one else knew about.
Then came 911 and the rules got rewritten as the veil got torn from the intelligence community's shoulders. Open source information -- stuff anyone with a brain and a healthy interest in finding something out -- is now a key tool for our spies.
The IC has touted its new commitment over the last few years, with the Director of National Intelligence creating OpenSource.gov, a website open to federal and state government employees and cleared contractors, and the creation of open source offices in almost every intelligence agency including the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA).
And the use of open source information is soaring, according to a panel here in San Antonio at the annual Geoint conference. Brian Magana, geospatial analysis branch chief at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that his consumption of open source data for one area of analysis he was following rocketed upwards 600 percent.
The use of open source materials is, of course, not new. Troops invading Grenada used commercial maps since the IC and military didn't have its own maps. But the use of this material on a daily basis to better inform the intelligence products is relatively new, especially for geospatial products.
"Is this a new way of beginning to report on the information?….Those of us in the geoint community are hoping that it is," said Jane Kuhar, head of the Map Services Center at the DNI's Open Source Center.
I asked the two intelligence practitioners on the panel whether they depended more heavily on open source or classified intelligence data.
"From my perspective, it's a combination. In areas where we are fully engaged, we have all our assets engaged and we don't need as much open source," Magana said. "In areas where we are not as fully engaged, you often have more data from the open sources."
Stephen Fowler, geospatial intelligence manager for the Army's 1st Information Operations Command, was less equivocal, putting the balance strongly on the side of open source. He estimated about 60 percent of his data came from open sources.
There are perils to the process. One source here said that analysts who engage in searches without masking their origin can lead to foreign governments or companies cutting off access to web sites or to people involved. The problem? Some analysts at NSA, CIA and other alphabet soup agencies forget to mask their IP addresses and the times at which they are searching. Chinese, Russian and other savvy operators can check time stamps, for example. If a search occurs during American working hours, it's a pretty good bet that it's an American source looking for the information.
Lesson: use open sources but behave like spies...
[Full disclosure: USGIF, who put on the Geoint conference, paid our airfare and hotel so we could cover this event.]