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With widely and easily available open-source intelligence today, basic information about military intent and movements, strategies and tactics is just a click away. Despite the various names used for it, this kind of intelligence is as old as warfare itself. But the internet, particularly the social media, poses a new challenge for democracies and militaries.

Governments and the military disseminate information to highlight successes and cover-up failures and, at times, even indulge in deception and disinformation. Social media delights in shattering the credibility of this information using open-source intelligence (OSINT). The adversary also uses OSINT to discredit governments. In India, OSINT was in the news during the Balakot strikes and the air skirmishes that followed on 26 and 27 February.


Also read: Suspended OSINT handles back on Twitter, trash claims they exposed IAF during Balakot


OSINT and multiple versions  

OSINT has been the primary source of basic intelligence with respect to a target country and its armed forces. Its collection and collation are a long-term process. Based on this data bank, intelligence resources are deployed to collect specific information to decide when, where and how the threat will manifest.

During the Balakot strikes, OSINT sources used commercial websites like www.flightradar24.com to put out sensitive information regarding the movement of Indian military aircraft. Subsequently, well-known OSINT handles like ElintNews, Intellipus, IntelCrab were temporarily taken off Twitter (following ‘requests from India’) for spreading disinformation and “violating Indian laws”.

Recently, defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra used a series of images provided by OSINT handles to argue in ThePrint that the Chinese have constructed a road in Bishing sector in Arunachal Pradesh. The Army clarified that indeed a road was ‘inadvertently’ constructed by the Chinese in 2017, and the issue was resolved through border management mechanism. Trees were planted on the road and a wall was constructed to clearly mark the LAC, the Army said. Mitra countered this version by offering latest satellite imagery to prove his point. The jury is still out on this issue. 

What is OSINT?

OSINT is information/data/intelligence collected from publicly available or open sources as opposed to covert or clandestine sources. All intelligence agencies across the world collect, collate and analyse open-source intelligence or OSINT.

The sources of OSINT are internet, media, academic/professional publications, published government data/statistics and commercially available analysis by professional organisations.

In the last three decades, revolutionary advances in easy-to-use electronic devices coupled with the vast reservoir of information available on the internet has made OSINT accessible to everyone. OSINT experts also make such data available commercially.


Also read: Satellite images show China road runs deep into Arunachal: Defence expert Abhijit Iyer-Mitra


Threat posed by OSINT

All governments have taken various measures to protect sensitive data, with some drafting tough laws. Armed forces have elaborate security procedures to deny information through strict and enforceable rules and regulations. All these conventional security precautions were fairly effective till a few years ago. While basic intelligence could be collected, but specific information was hard to access. However, with advances in technology, even specific intelligence can now be collected. Let me prove the point by a few examples.

Northern Command, for instance, has a budget of Rs 300 crore for emergent purchases under the Army Commander’s special financial powers. As per the government’s financial procedures, the tenders are floated on the internet. A mere analysis of the tender notices can provide basic information about specialist weapons and equipment being bought and the shortages prevailing in the Northern Command.

In mountains, given the nature of the terrain and the space limitation, defences are located on hill tops/ridges and artillery gun positions and logistic bases in the narrow valleys. Any military expert can use Google Maps and Google Earth to identify these locations with fair accuracy. After this, all that remains is determining the quality and quantity of fire power and units/formations needed to destroy or capture them.

The countermeasures, in such a scenario, are camouflage/concealment, hardening of defences and tunnelling. Forcing Google to blur the military installations or large swathes of sensitive terrain is a double-edged sword, and in any case the damage has already been done.

Similarly, aviation and sea-faring safety demands that information of all aircraft and ships is in public domain. Military aircraft/ships do switch to encrypted military transponders during operations. But when moving through civil air/sea space, the ‘civil mode’ is switched on for safety reasons – which allows tracking of the aircraft/ship to discern intentions. The countermeasures are deception and closing of air/sea space to civilian aircraft/ships. Again, closing of air/sea space is not a pragmatic option during undeclared conflict situations. 

Threat to credibility

Public perception drives the actions of democratic governments and their military. And, this depends on the credibility of the information, which is increasingly being challenged by OSINT handles.

The best way to counter this threat is by providing not just credible but irrefutable proof of actions. The other alternative is to prepare an elaborate deception plan to sustain the desired narrative.

During the Balakot strikes and the dogfight the day after, incisive investigation, deception and disinformation based on OSINT left a cloud of ambiguity over claims of both India and Pakistan.

The IAF failed to formally exploit the most credible OSINT about shooting down of the F-16 in the form of videos shot by civilians in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well as Indian citizens from our side of the Line of Control. It was left to the OSINT enthusiasts to prove the point.


Also read: 8 pieces of clinching evidence that show how IAF’s Abhinandan shot down a Pakistani F-16


OSINT cannot be wished away

Let there be no doubt that OSINT is here to stay and cannot be wished away. Internet will find ways to defeat all draconian measures.

The answer, therefore, lies in understanding the threat posed by OSINT and initiating countermeasures. The best countermeasure is to be the first to put out the information backed by irrefutable evidence and defeat disinformation by prompt denial with credible evidence. The plan must be to not only defeat the OSINT threat, but also exploit it to our advantage.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

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11 Comments Share Your Views

11 COMMENTS

  1. “Draconian”?!?

    Come a-gain?!!

    Is the author sure that he worked for the Army?
    Because isn’t “draconian” the ideal in military culture?

  2. For Modi stuff to create an image as a father of India as Mr.President USA said.The same thing is about to happen Mr. Home Minster cancelled 370;35A but don’t touched the article 371.Why. The movies The accidental Prime Minister ,Narendra Modi, & Operation Uri or latest video’s on Balakote , what are for to form OSINT for whom. The journalists or Reporters are not allowed to enter Kashmir & Ladakh still update, no doubt form stuff against the government in the nation & out of the nation, in the world. Information system may be forced through logic,reasoning, some news floating in the atomosphere , are really problematic for not only military or government but also to Socioeconomic status of the nation in the country and the world.The same about China’s Presidential visit ,only speculations and one sided news as China said nothing. Both positive & Negative OSINT are a reason to believe are threats.

  3. 1.I am not an Economist.But a practical Banker who has seen many ups and downs of many entrepreneurs.While it is not difficult to manufacture if you have men,machines and money ,selling is not in the hands of producers.There should be buyers.Money should be available to buy.In India even today ,prosperity depends on rural economy.I still feel that THREE important areas Modiji announced in Oct 2014,immediately after he took over as Prime Minister is relevant EVEN today.
    1.Village Adoption:A member of Parliament gets Rs.5 crores per year as M.P’s fund .ie .He gets Rs.25 crores during his tenure.If ALL MPs adopt atleast ONE village about 750 villages can be adopted.If Rs.25 crores are not enough to develop a village more funds can be given by Govt,Banks,private investors.Hon.Prime minister MUST insist atleast his party MPs to adopt.Villages. Then Villages will have schools,Primary health centers,Local markets,motor able roads to take their products to Mandis .Local adminstartion,Lead banks,and Mps and MLAS can co-ordinate the development activities.Over and above MP fund MLA funds also will be available .
    2.Khadi Development: All over the world people prefer pure cotton fabric and dresses. Khadi development will give employment for villagers during agricultural employment is not available.It will help to increase cotton cultivation and create additional employment.{Direct and indirect} There are experts in this field who will be able to advise the Govt .
    3.Skill Development: Thousands of skilled workers come out of I.T.Is .They should get jobs.If Govt develops Industrial parks in All districts and get the support of public and private sector organisations to train them and employ them and merge them with “Make In India” programmes. it will create jobs and also save foreign exchange by reducing imports.I find even Soaps are imported from China. Defense,Railways,Telecommunications and many other Govt depts are major buyers and they can give preference to such SSIs .
    4.If the govt give this responsibility to an efficient Minister ,duly supported/reviews by PMO,it will work.With in Four years we will be able to see a radical change/progress.

  4. This government has even fabricated it’s non- existent muscularity through media barons , who have affinity (?) for this government for reasons, which are neither inscrutable or arcane

  5. An interesting article from the General and food for though.
    Most services that IB and RAW provide, can be outsourced to amateurs and journalists who already provide better quality overall intelligence, then most state intelligence agencies including the CIA..
    Higher pixel resolution imagery than google earth, can be bought bespoke and cheaply from a number of commercial vendors, I wonder why investigative journalists are not funded properly by media houses to buy commercial imagery, we would then know how many trees, have been killed in Balakot,
    But scrutiny of commercial high pixel imagery over large areas is labour intensive.
    Example: It will take many thousands of hours labour, to discover changes in Chinese infrastructure in Tibet. To assess the movement of military vehicles, for identification and then comparisons of structures, buildings from historical imagery, to build a picture of all the ‘happenings’ in Tibet over time .
    The sweatshop part of the work can be crowdsourced over the internet. Say rupees 25 per square kilometre.
    What better job for BJP IT cells, these keyboard warriors, these lynching and anti Romeo squads.
    instead of being deployed to hurl abuse at the liberal , bait Muslims, spread fake news, these cattle worshippers could be usefully deployed to scrutinise the millions of square kilometres of imagery across our borders. Our very own saffron digital guards.
    As for the intelligence provided by IB and RAW, it’s a colossal waste of money for the most part, sack the lot of them and take away their pensions. Starting with the IPS bureaucrats.
    Most of the stuff RAW spews out, as confidential assessment for their clients, is what anybody can obtain by reading newspapers and media over the internet. The analysis from these agencies ( it is said) is of such pathetic quality its derisory.
    A great deal of intelligence form IB is obtained from the primitive and time tested method, vicious beatings at local police stations. Some by monitoring IP addresses and from the local SHOs who have their ears to the ground.
    We are all ‘talkative Indians’ , so some intelligence comes from talking and sometimes handing over copious amounts cash (a sure way of making friends) , listening and making people feel important especially cultivating the important in Jail – some of Those Kashmiri in jail (are probably) being befriended and cultivated at this moment.
    TIP FOR THE PATRIOTS.
    SAW ON NDTV TODAY THAT 3000 PEOPLE A YEAR ARE KILLED BY ROAD ACCIDENTS DIRECTLY RELATED TO POTHOLES.
    WE ASPIRE TO COMPETE WITH CHINA, A TIP TOWARDS THIS LOFTY AIM, IS LEARNING THE ABILITY TO ORGANISE, TO FIX SIMPLE THINGS LIKE POTHOLES AND DELIVER SAFE ROADS.

    • Saw on NDTV today PM cleaning beach at Mamallapuram, only that beach first cleaned and removed of sharp shells and stones for PMs bare feet.
      Then plastic bottles and bags placed on beach and camera crew put into position
      Then PM walked on beach and picked up bottles.
      If we can organise this, we have the ability to compete with China.

    • PM carrying a plastic bag while cleaning beach, despite plastic facing a ban.
      Note the a transparent plastic bag has been arranged. So we public can see via the TV cameras the five plastic bottles our PM has picked up.

  6. Well general there is no evidence to prove you dropped f-16😜 your loser abinanden already captured by us who was Pakistani pilot if you dropped the plane in your soil so don’t try to fool your public with stuff which you never can rely. Osnit is not going to give you credible information because you are logically and physically proved lossers.

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