Creativity and critical thinking are essential skills in open source research

A capable open source analyst can find useful information in archives, news and even propaganda. Supo increasingly invests in open source intelligence.

Pink currents.

A creative and curious, but also critical mind is what you need when conducting open source intelligence at Supo. Open source intelligence (OSINT) means using information available from public sources in intelligence work.

The range of potential information sources is huge, including social media, news, satellite images and educational materials. Satellite images can verify events that have already occurred, while news media may report the time and place of some relevant event.

“Open source intelligence work is an innovative undertaking, because information may be gathered using a wide range of approaches and may even be found in very surprising places, such as archives. Even old information, for example about people, can sometimes prove surprisingly useful,” explains one anonymous senior analyst working in open source intelligence, whom we shall call Petra.

Open source intelligence has a long heritage. The importance of this field has only grown more crucial in recent years, as digital sources increasingly provide more information in novel forms. Supo is also increasingly investing in open source intelligence.

You have to know how to disagree with yourself

A great deal of information is available from public sources, even in autocratic states. Relevant details can often be gleaned from statutes and statistics alone. Even propaganda may provide relevant insight into the mindset of leaders in a foreign state or radical ideological groups. Critical thinking is always essential in intelligence work.

“While there is a great deal of noise on social media, even here we may find important nuggets of information. What matters is how the information is processed,” explains senior analyst specialist Veli-Pekka Kivimäki. “It is essential to remain critical. This means not getting obsessed with any particular point of view, and remaining willing to disagree with yourself.”

Useful sources will vary according to the phenomenon being studied. When considering terrorism, we typically seek information on individuals, groups, or their ideology and propaganda. When endeavouring to understand the behaviour of states, the particular question may lead us to study everything from editorial media to satellite images.

Planning and operational protection are required

Anyone can gather a great deal of information from open sources nowadays. The collection work of Supo always serves the information needs of the customer and Finnish national security. Intelligence operations are also carefully planned, requiring a systematic study of detail. The truth sometimes turns out to be less exciting than conclusions drawn in public debate.

The work of a public authority is always prescribed by law, meaning that more restrictions apply than is the case when a layman searches for information online. Browsing individual social media profiles, for example, may readily be interpreted as the kind of surveillance that requires a formal warrant.

“We cannot just snoop around people’s profiles on a whim – and we wouldn’t even want to. Intelligence work must always have some objective. Mere curiosity is not enough,” Petra explains.

Firm statutory grounds are always required for using intelligence methods. We generally seek information by other means in the first instance, such as from open sources where possible. Open sources often provide the quickest and cheapest way to gather information while minimising intrusion into privacy.

“Information may be more readily available from open sources, with no need to apply the most intrusive methods in all cases. On the other hand, there may be less open source information available on such topics as the plans and intentions of foreign powers,” Kivimäki notes.

Good forward planning and precise objectives are crucial in open source intelligence. It is also necessary to give carefully consideration to protecting your own information searches in intelligence work, as online information retrieval always leaves some kind of trace.