The Rise of Commercial Intelligence Services
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
In the pre-cyberspace Cold War, espionage was the preoccupation of secret government intelligence agencies and tradecraft focused on the physical world. Much has changed. The global security environment is far more complex, and we are well into the open information age – it’s a world of big data and ubiquitous technical surveillance, where the war on truth may be the most significant challenge of our lifetime.
The Deputy Director CIA of digital innovation describes Open-Source Intelligence as “the INT of first resort, informing every aspect of the intelligence community’s mission.” Commercial intelligence services provide an essential capability to both national security, military, public safety, health, and competitive business operations.
Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) is not just reading the news, watching TV, scanning Twitter or paying a librarian or co-op student to do your Google searches for you.
McDaniel Wicker and Patrick Butler of Babel Street explain that for a long time OSINT was primarily composed of insights from foreign news sources. It was supplemental public information that analysts could layer on top of classified intelligence to gain a full operational picture. Many in the intelligence community viewed it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a mission-critical data source — something to confirm rather than to foundationally inform. That era is over.
It’s over for two reasons, they write. First, the scope of OSINT has exploded in the digital age, from public legal records to social media platforms, and the dark web. OSINT now encompasses every online channel that bad actors are using to communicate and mobilize.
Second, technology has evolved to address the three major obstacles to transforming OSINT into mission-critical decisions: Speed, scale and cost. The exponentially growing amount of data has overwhelmed conventional analysis tools and made it challenging for traditional organizations to deliver insights fast enough to stay a step ahead of threats.
What is Commercial Intelligence
Commercial entities collect intelligence using the same methods from many of the same sources as national agencies, but under a different legal framework.
It is important to differentiate between OSINT and commercially sourced intelligence (CSINT). OSINT refers to a broad array of information in the public domain that can be accessed by the general public. Conversely, CSINT is only available to the originator, describes or represents internal commercial activities, and is only acquired through a commercial transaction, according to Cynthia Saddy, EJ Alam and Kelli Holden.
The volume of OSINT/CSINT data has grown exponentially, requiring a shift in thinking around private partnerships. General Michael Hayden told a crowd at CANSEC, a defence and security trade show hosted annually in Ottawa by the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, that Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, and Meta (Facebook), Microsoft, telecos and data brokers have access to way more intelligence than he ever had while serving as director of both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA).
CSINT has tremendous potential to shape intelligence tradecraft as well, either enhancing or challenging it in every form of intelligence (INT) collection.
It's a Big Data World
National governments, militaries and intelligence agencies, if they are unable to adapt to power-shifts accelerated by digital empowerment and open data, will find themselves overcome by non-state actors and adversaries usurping control of the information domain.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) explains that in the evolution of state power in cyberspace and intelligence, the “oscillation in the balance of power may be peaking, but never before could a dozen people in their pyjamas meaningfully annul the monopoly on the use of force.”
While traditional agencies have remained mostly closed environments, commercial intelligence organizations have the benefit of being infinitely scalable using secure cloud computing, crowdsourcing and big data fusion powered by artificial intelligence. Solutions can be used to observe patterns in data at a fast rate and reach more sources than traditional human-driven searches.
Attempting the production of open source intelligence (PAI, CAI) within a closed intelligence agency runs counter to culture and conventional doctrine.
Industrial Information Power
Industrial power in the information domain will continue to grow and will challenge traditional models for national security. As we have seen in the Russian-Ukraine conflict, the private sector will conduct more military-like cyber and intelligence operations independently and in cooperation with the state to pacing threats.
“Commercial data or [CSINT] is already shaping business in the digital world. It is being used by governments and businesses to edge out the competition,” write Saddy, Alam and Holden. “We should care because, right now, we are in the equivalent of a modern arms race to derive meaning and value from CSINT, and those who win that race will achieve strategic advantage. Those who do not will fail.”
The democratization of data will fuel surveillance capitalism. Ubiquitous technical surveillance (UTS) from satellite constellations and programs like China’s SkyNet and SharpEye raise the prospect of a world in which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape the proliferating technologies for wholesale data collection and analysis. CSINT has access to the equivalent of global SIGINT. OSINT/CSINT and artificial intelligence will be seen as both an enabler to UTS and a counter to it.
Adversarial Power and the Rise of Privateers
Canada’s adversaries will increase their use of private military contractors and private sector offensive actors (PSOA) for paramilitary cyber, intelligence and influence operations requiring deniability and circumvention of international norms and conventions. Even now, Russia is recruiting mercenaries to fight in Ukraine and conduct cyber and cognitive warfare campaigns.
Ukrainian military defence operations could have been informed by using CSINT to track Russian soldiers’ mobile devices, which for the last few weeks were located in Russia and Belarus on the border of Ukraine. Commercial surveillance and reconnaissance satellites provide daily high-resolution imagery, detect GPS jamming, and deliver ELINT of the battlefield while commercial cyber counters Russian operations.
Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence, explains that “there are highly reputable commercial intelligence organizations… [They are] not missionaries out to fix the world, but [have] enough of a moral compass to repudiate the other routes to an outsized impact online, such as trolling and hacking.”
Turning Point for Secret Intelligence
Canada’s national security working group recently stated that “secret intelligence is undergoing an existential crisis,” as big data empowers CSINT and OSINT services for the provision of timely, actionable and cost-effective alternatives accessible to both the public and private sectors.
CIA’s position on OSINT/CSINT is clear, explains, Jennifer Ewbank, CIA Deputy Director for digital innovation: “Many questions that once had to be answered by more secretive intelligence collection are now answered with a few clicks on a mobile device. OSINT/[CSINT] is also where technological innovation is making the most rapid contributions.”
The wide aperture of OSINT/CSINT is critical for a military that needs to go from sensor-to-shooter at the speed of cyber.
Client Centric Mission Focused Business
Commercial intelligence is tightly coupled to client requirements and mission effectiveness. Companies only produce products for which there is a market and satisfied clients willing to pay for the intelligence, commensurate with its perceived value.
Commercial intelligence can also deliver a curated high-value product that is also timely, actionable and cost-effective, freeing up expensive classified sources, assets and infrastructure to focus efforts without exposure. A trusted intelligence data broker can cloak the primary intelligence priorities of clients and provide special operational security.
We are entering the age of influence and information where open data is the currency of the intelligence business.
Correspondingly, we have seen a rise of both open and commercial intelligence and the dominance of cyber, soft power and influence in global affairs, national security and military power. These days, nearly all intelligence is derived from open-source methods. This information domain is predominantly owned, operated or curated by the private sector.
Hence, commercial intelligence as a service has the potential to deliver unique, tailored intelligence that is fast, precise, accurate and affordable to both the public and private sectors.
Dave McMahon is the Chief Intelligence Officer of Sapper Labs Cyber Solutions. He has 30 years of experience in the intelligence business with the national agencies and the private sector.