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Goodbye: A great run with open data

Image credit: Google Earth

Ben Heubl, E&T's associate editor, leaves the magazine and reflects on how his taste for open-source intelligence and data affected his work.

In 2005, Gijs de Vries, back then the European Union's first anti-terrorism coordinator, told reporters: "You can't get closer to the heart of national sovereignty than national security and intelligence services". De Vries was referring to the incorporation of domestic-security services into Europe's counter-terrorism analysis work.

The thinking is good. Cross-disciplinary and collaborative intelligence analysis work increasingly pays off today outside governments, and De Vries's often cited quote rings true outside the anti-terrorism domain, especially in journalism. A new trend towards a more liberal approach to open-source information allows the public and journalists to take control of what people should know.

Your humble correspondent argued for using open-source intelligence (OSINT) since the start of his tenure as editor and journalist at this magazine and found a sympathetic ear here. Other magazines started seeing the value for journalism and independently verified newsgathering. 

Satellite images

Image credit: Google Earth

Open data in satellite images (parking cars) shows how staff occupancy rates changed at the IET’s Michael Faraday House before and during Covid-19 (Google Earth)

As OSINT and all its subdomains change the power dynamics of intelligence gathering, De Vries's quote's invert sounds increasingly true, too. One possibly can't get closer to the heart of the problem of national security than by discussing national sovereignty.

Of course, as with anything, there are issues with people who misinterpret sovereignty. One emerging concern is the 'sovereign citizen' movement, describing a growing number of people who believe that laws do not apply to them and violently threatening police and law-enforcement services worldwide. But for information gathering, the liberation of information - compared with keeping secrets - is often the best option for society. 

To unearth the truth was the top priority during my time here, and OSINT made most of it possible in unprecedented ways. 

In a recent briefing report, The Economist stressed the growing opportunities of OSINT in the defence sector. OSINT liberates information to anyone, with often no more than internet access needed. It 'feeds a veritable boom in non-state OSINT', the author writes. That's certainly true when it comes to the investigative work here at E&T. Over the past years, I argued that OSINT has a much broader usage, beyond conflict and defence, and across most other journalism beats.

We had a good run. With OSINT we exposed environmental injustice, wrongdoing, government failure, discriminationdata privacy violationsdisinformationrotten scienceillegal fishingmining or wildlife trafficking, to just name a few.

But if anyone thinks OSINT is a guarantee for success and a stable receipt, they may be in for a surprise. Open-source intelligence is anything but stable and is constantly evolving. Instead, what's on offer often relies on temporary loopholes, leaked data and data that may alter or be altered, or be plain wrong.

After one OSINT tool has opened up to the public and been used to expose something of importance, it may often soon close. Nothing is free in this world. Companies and governments know that. The more that OSINT moves into the spotlight, the less likely it may be that it pays off. It's a cat-and-mouse game played between the regulator, companies and concerned individuals, activists, journalists or law enforcement agencies.  

And that's a real dilemma. If channels of open data sources are revealed, they may shut soon after. If they are kept private or secret, they are not openly accessible, which defeats the purpose of open knowledge.

The upside is: OSINT may breed a novel crowd of individuals that rely on their creativity and agility to unearth information withheld from the public.

That's positive, especially for organisations that collect information for a living, such as magazines and newsrooms. This gives young and agile entities (not only in journalism) an edge. E&T took advantage of this. Big established media and intelligence houses can do much to attract innovative people interested in OSINT, but essential is they give them enough time and resources to delve into this space to make their mark. 

In other words, if they want to foster an environment where tech-savvy OSINT enthusiasts flourish, they need to allow sufficient playtime and cut constraints to established routines.

Being agile and a small team at E&T made this work. Sometimes OSINT was even necessary as potential interviewees, often companies, didn't pick up the phone and preferred to speak to large media houses instead. It was then that technology gave our bespoke reporting an edge. We also received only a few complaints because most of the information from OSINT we included in our storytelling could be independently verified by anyone with web access. 

As I am leaving my associate editor post at this magazine, I recognise how much I owe to open-access technology and how it changed modern investigative journalism at large. International broadcasters now hire OSINT editors and journalists. Newsrooms across the world realise that the largely science-inspired techniques of 'creative and critical thinking to navigate digital sources on the web', is increasingly indispensable.

A lot has changed since Gijs de Vries looked after counterterrorism for the EU in the early 2000ds. But what hasn't is that people want to know the truth about what's happening underneath their feet. I hope the investigative and data-driven journalism I helped to publish here over the past two and a half years showed that the truth can be exposed via using open-source engineering and technology, a legacy worth being proud of.  

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