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  • Kylie Pert

The OSINT Analyst's Dilemma


Being an OSINT analyst is compelling. Delving into vast digital landscapes, scrupulously scouring online sources, and piecing together information like a detective to uncover hidden patterns for actionable intelligence. But being an OSINT analyst is also inherently challenging, and can be a thankless task at times. You’re often dealing with large amounts of data that require scrutiny and analysis. And striving to stay up‑to-date with rapidly evolving technologies to ensure you’re staying ahead of your adversary and drawing accurate conclusions while considering biases and dis/misinformation. It can also be a tiring dance between hard thinking and the pressure to deliver reliable insights promptly.


Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great intelligence analysts. Most of whom shared my passion for analytical tradecraft, but they also shared some of my pains. In this post, I offer some of our collective insights to help navigate the highs and not‑so-highs of ‘analyst life’ – and maybe even help you to unlock some new perspectives.


Intelligence is expected to be done well but is seldom used well.


Good intelligence provides meaningful and actionable insights for decision-makers. But, if it’s misunderstood, influenced, or politicised then intelligence amounts to missed opportunity – or worse. For an analyst, this can be exceptionally frustrating and disillusioning. But what can you do about this and remain impartial? If afforded the opportunity, we can put time and effort into educating consumers on how best to direct and use intelligence. We can also collaborate with other analysts or experts to continuously improve our intelligence production processes. And when necessary, we can ingest learnings from past mistakes.


Decision or operational failures are not always intelligence failures.


Analysts don’t have to predict every trend or event for intelligence to be useful. Sometimes, upon review, your intelligence tradecraft was as good as it gets. And your judgments were the best they could be based on the information you had available at the time. Other times, you’ll be able to identify improvements. But it always matters how you apply your analytical tradecraft and how your insights and assessments are construed by the consumer. If your work is accurate, thorough, clear, timely, and insightful then chances are it will hold up to scrutiny – even if the intelligence doesn’t predict the right outcome.


In tougher times, when the phrase ‘Intelligence Failure’ is being thrown around, it’s important to remember that as OSINT analysts we must be open to reviewing our thought processes and judgments. We should always look for opportunities to review our own work – including procedures, methodologies, and analysis – to identify if/how things went wrong. True intelligence failures often result from a combination of factors including: inadequate or poorly directed collection; poor analytical discipline and techniques; bureaucratic obstacles; and political pressures. To address these issues, decision-makers and analysts must continuously work to improve their methods, enhance cooperation, and learn from past mistakes to prevent future failures.


Everyone’s an expert…


…or so they will tell you! Bosses, decision-makers, consumers, and colleagues alike. Everyone loves to tell the OSINT analyst that they know better. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The key to being a great analyst is to know how to leverage ‘experts’ to best effect. If you’re in the information game (and we are!) then everyone has something to offer you; everyone is a potential source of information. There’s no harm in learning what you can from people and using their insights to complement the information you collect online. You can often save time by interviewing someone who has worked on an issue for longer than you. Or you can collaborate with a challenging customer to show them what your intelligence products can do for them. With your help, they may learn to provide better direction for the intelligence problems you’re working on, improving your output.


On the flip side, imposter syndrome can be real when you start out as an OSINT analyst. Suddenly, you’re expected to provide insight and judgements about complex and often incomplete information, not just find and share that information. You must give it meaning, quickly and with authority. Maybe you’re familiar with the topic, maybe you aren’t. Probably, you’re required to be an expert on many things. And that’s ok because you’re an expert at intelligence analysis! If we analysts spend time mastering our analytical craft, then we can apply what we know to any topic that comes our way.


It’s ok to use your intuition.


In our course, The Art of Open-Source Intelligence Analysis, we always get some good discussion about intuition and whether it has a place in intelligence analysis. I think it does, but please allow me to qualify.


Intuition, or the ability to grasp insights without explicit reasoning, can be an asset if its use is complemented with evidence-based analysis. Intuition can help analysts identify patterns, connections and potential threats that might not be immediately apparent through conventional means. Trusting your intuition involves good self-awareness and being open to unconventional ideas while maintaining a healthy dose of scepticism to identify and minimise biases. These are all important skills for a bourgeoning OSINT analyst to master.


But to use intuition effectively, we must cultivate a deep understanding of our subject matter, enabling our subconscious mind to draw on a wealth of knowledge and experience. Our intuitive hunches must be subjected to scrutiny, supported by data, and corroborated through quality analytical processes and techniques. If used well, integrating intuition with evidence-driven analysis can generate more comprehensive and robust insights.


Source evaluation is hard, but we have to do it.


There’s no doubt evaluating sources and information online takes a bit of brain power and discipline. How do we know if the information we are consuming is true, accurate or justified? How can we be confident that the information we use to inform our judgments and advice to decision-makers is of good quality? Source evaluation is also time consuming, even with the help of established methodologies like R2C2 (see our previous blog on Verifying Information Online). There will always either be too much or too little information, and both present unique problems for analysts.

It’s important to put some formality and consistency around the evaluation of your sources and information. This won’t just improve your analysis; it will improve the advice and recommendations you provide to decision-makers. It will also allow you to justify your judgments should someone ask you to. Source evaluation is not the sexy part of an analyst’s job. But it is essential and the more we do it, the better at it we become.


Communicating complex information simply, is complex.


Probably one of the most difficult skills to learn as an analyst is how to communicate clearly and concisely about complex issues. It’s not easy to analyse large amounts of information and transform it into a few key judgments. But that’s the OSINT analyst’s job!


Our customers are too busy to read lengthy prose. They’re looking for quick and actionable insights and a BLUF (bottom-line up front). We don’t want to confuse them with our words or arguments. We want to give them confidence in our thinking and tradecraft. Paying attention to detail is also important because even minor grammatical and formatting errors can put our credibility at risk. If you’re not naturally a whiz at this, that’s ok. Intelligence writing and briefing is a skill that can be learnt if you are open to the lesson. Seek advice and feedback and source appropriate training. But you’ll need to leave your ego at the door. Chances are you can’t edit your own work as well as someone else can, so get people to review it for you. Ultimately, OSINT analysts must learn to communicate well, or else our time spent collecting and analysing amounts to not much.


A final thought...


Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, stuck while writing a brief or facing the armchair critics, seek out your analyst friends – those who understand you and can be a source of camaraderie, creativity, or critique when all seems lost. Afterall, OSINT analyst jobs are competitive and highly sought after so you’re probably already working with some of the best people to help you along on your analyst journey. And remember, being an OSINT analyst is interesting, important, and meaningful – often because of the very challenges that can trip us up.


To delve deeper into the learnings above or discuss how we can assist in uplifting your organisation's OSINT capability, please contact us about our NexusXplore platform, or our in-person and self paced training courses.

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