Governments “run “ on information. They need to be constantly aware of what is occurring around them, and how this could affect their interests, in order to take the right decisions at the right time. However not all the information they need is publicly available, which is why intelligence agencies were created with the objective of collecting, analysing and using confidential information, obtained secretly, to advise decision-makers. The collection process takes place after certain tasks have been assigned by the decision-makers, and consists of acquiring the necessary information which will then be treated at a later stage of the intelligence cycle. Traditionally, the collecting process of such agencies comes from either human intelligence, meaning information directly transmitted from a trustworthy person to an intelligence officer, or technical intelligence, which uses technology and machines to obtain this information.
Today, however, the collection process of all information-seeking organizations has been transformed with the Internet. It is the largest, fastest-expanding source of information worldwide, where anybody on any point of the globe can post or have access to information. The impact of the Internet on Intelligence agencies is undoubtable, and it has become a major component of open-source intelligence (OSINT, the process of acquiring information from public sources to be treated and put in use for intelligence purposes). It provides information which is cheaper, more accessible, more timely and easier to disseminate in a shorter time. This has lead some people to believe that:
“So much information is now available on the Internet (even if some of it is inaccurate) that intelligence collection in the traditional sense is now no longer necessary”.
Has the Internet revolutionized the information collection process to the point of making the traditional methods obsolete? In this paper, I will defend the view that it has not, thus disagreeing with the statement above. I will discuss that information available on the Internet is no replacement to information collected in the traditional sense, both theoretically (I) and in practice (II), even though it is a useful instrument which can also be used to guide decision-makers (III).
I) The theoretical distinction between information available on the Internet and traditional intelligence collection
In 2005, General Michael Hayden, from the US Open Source Centre, stated that “just because information is stolen, it does not make it better”. This is true, however, what if the information was “stolen” because it was not available anywhere else?
One must not confuse the terms information and intelligence. Information is made up of the facts agencies seek; intelligence is the process of acquiring and making use of confidential information which responds to the government's interests. Of course, if this information was available on the Internet, no rational organization would prefer to spend more money, more resources and a greater effort on high-risk operations, which is what information collection implies in the intelligence domain. The problem is that the information intelligence agencies seek is voluntarily hidden by the entity that controls it, which is why it is confidential, and for obvious reasons not posted on the Internet. Moreover, the more people that have a piece of information, the harder it is to have control over it, which incites organizations detaining information to keep it to themselves. By definition, intelligence information is therefore unavailable elsewhere. Consequently, the...