What makes a good Open Source Intelligence analyst?

The International Relations and Security Network of the Swiss University ETH in Zurich answers this question in an interview with Chris Pallaris, head of i-intelligence in Switzerland. The interview provides an excellent summary of the qualities and skills of intelligence analysts in both business and government intelligence environments – but it is also interesting in the context of the current situation in Germany (where we are about to reform intelligence services following the failure to uncover a series of right-wing terrorist attacks which happened over the last decade).

Chris describes Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) as „information legally derived from publicly available sources“, and shows that, subsequently, we all could profit from better open source intelligence skills, meaning the process of identification of an information need, finding the information, analyzing it, packaging it into a product and disseminating it.

What I love most is the very concise description of the skills an intelligence professional has to have, apart from the unavoidable curiosity:

  • Intellectual honesty: The ability to admit that you don’t know something, or that you might be wrong.
  • Information literacy: Intimate familiarity with the theory and philosophy of information and practical aspects of information like perception, usage, context.
  • Tolerance: Towards risk, ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity – and tolerance with people who do not have these qualities, i.e. who expect analytic certainty which cannot be delivered most of the times.
  • Understanding of human psychology: What drives human beings?
  • Excellent communication skills: In all forms, in writing and presenting information.
  • Analytical skills: Challenge assumptions, using all kinds of analysis methods.

„It’s only information overload if you don’t know what you are looking for.“

Intelligence professionals often only have a very basic training and often lack special and ongoing training of expert skills – from my own experience with companies I can only confirm that observation. But Chris also refers to government intelligence analysts – which, sadly enough, seems to be supported by the publicly discussed failures of German intelligence services in the near past.

Especially in this context we should take a thorough look at the intelligence reforms in the US where OSINT now plays a much more important role than in the past, symbolized exactly seven years ago by turning the US Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service into the „Open Source Center“. Chris states three opportunities in upgrading OSINT in the overall mix:

  • OSINT gives you situational awareness – secrets do not always give you the full picture but often only the perspective of a certain individual.
  • OSINT gives you the opportunity to validate findings from clandestine sources.
  • OSINT gives you the ability to advance individual and organizational learning.

I recommend listening to the complete podcast very much – and ISN was so kind to publish it under a CC license, so I am able to show it here.

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