Open Source information: A decision-making tool

January 31, 2014

When used appropriately Open Source (OS) information has the ability to provide clarity and increased awareness for homeland security and emergency management decision-makers and responders. This can be done quickly, without a need for cumbersome secured communication devices, which often are not available at all levels in the hierarchy.

As with all other tools in the discipline, OS information has the potential to be an outstanding resource; but it can also be a distractor. Therefore, it's critical that today's decision-makers and responders be trained in how to assess the validity and usefulness of OS information to aid in their responses to type 4 and 5 incidents and possibly during the early stages of type 3 incidents, which tend to require a longer lead time to establish a fully functioning intelligence or information branch. 1

While most are familiar with the term Open Source Intelligence, or OSINT, a much smaller proportion could actually define what OSINT is, how it is produced, and most importantly, how OSINT is different from OS information. All too often decision-makers or responders say "we have intel on..." when in reality what they have in their hands is nothing more than raw information that intelligence might be derived from.

So what is OS information? OS information is unclassified information that is accessible by everyone via a multitude of media newspapers, television broadcast, radio, internet news feeds, social media, etc. The first distinction between OS information and OSINT is that OS information is not intelligence. The term intelligence is not and has never been synonymous or interchangeable with the term information, and they should never be conflated into one term. By definition, information is raw data that has not been analyzed or synthesized into a single or multiple coherent product(s) designed to aid specific planning or operations. 2 Intelligence, on the other hand, is the product that results from the analysis and synthesis of information.

This means there will always be a delay - no matter how slight - between the time of information collection and intelligence production.

Decision-makers and responders must often make critical decisions without the luxury of having access to a full spectrum of intelligence products. Their ability to take appropriate actions in the absence of intelligence products can be enhanced exponentially when they are able to assess available OS information to aid in their planning and operations, while still maintaining an appreciation for the differences between information and intelligence.

Currently, many agencies at the Federal and State levels offer OSINT courses for intelligence analysts; however, there is a dearth of courses that specifically target decision-makers and responders. The National Center for Security & Preparedness is working to fill this void by developing an OS information course to provide responders and decision-makers in homeland security and emergency management the tools to better assess and use OS information.

1. FEMA. Incident Complexity. Resource Management ICS 200b. Accessed December 27, 2013.
2. FBI. Intelligence Defined. Directorate of Intelligence. Accessed December 27, 2013.