Monday, December 9, 2019

Missiles and Castles and Planets, Oh My!

Open-source intelligence, crowd sourcing, and citizen science has revolutionized information gathering and analysis. From discovering illegal dumps or new wildlife habitats to verifying refugee stories of war crimes, it is changing the world. Image source:

I have a lot of interests. I mean, a lot. And although lots of people have lots of interests, most may only focus on one or two big ones. Traditionally, these interests would become a career and anything outside of that was relegated to the realm of "hobby", with little interconnection or effect on the outside world.

The "open source universe" has changed all of that. What once required a degree, or major grants, or was the sole domain of government has become part of the daily lives of millions of people around the world, all contributing their part to a wider universe of knowledge and policy.

On Dec. 6, 2019, Amy Zegart of The Atlantic wrote about "self-appointed spies" engaging in nuclear non-proliferation research and other serious matters where governments had once held a monopoly. Commercial satellite imagery, Google Earth, and various other open-source intelligence (OSINT) have busted down the doors of secrecy surrounding North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, and pretty much the entire world. PhD's and amateurs alike have helped to peer into nuclear activities, debunk misinformation coming from governments, and create detailed maps of mysterious countries (yours truly happened to be mentioned in the article).

The next day her article became extremely relevant as world events took their turn. On Dec. 7, North Korea conducted a "very important" test at their Sohae Satellite Launch Center. Days prior, warnings of activity at the site were sounded by one of these citizen spies (Dr. Jeffrey Lewis in this case, who was also mentioned in Zegart's article). 

There couldn't have been a more perfect example of the global importance of the democratization of technology and information.

By using Google Earth, I was able to locate this ancient fort in North Korea.

But missile hunting is only one part of what has become an entire biome based on OSINT, volunteer science and research, distributive computing, and the use of accessible and rapidly improving technology to open up the world and to solve problems.

Beyond North Korea, another area I am interested in is archaeology. Using Google Earth I have been able to locate thousands of castles, forts, defensive walls, and ancient tells around the globe. Dr. Sarah Parcak pioneered using satellites and remote sensing to uncover ancient Egypt, and these methods have helped to make major discoveries all around the world at an unprecedented rate.
Using these methods have enabled researchers to make these discoveries without needing to resort to years of hunting through dense rain forest or wasting time following false leds, saving countless man-hours and allowing already limited funding to be better utilized.

Indeed, from hunting for planets to finding new penguin colonies or modeling protein folding, non-traditional sources and methods have a combined value in the billions of dollars...that never ended up needing to be spent. At the same time, the added economic benefits from discoveries based on these sources is likewise in the billions. It has even contributed in ways that are priceless like discovering lost forests in Mozambique. 

Moving on, satellites and crowd sourcing have blown open the world of pollution management as illegal e-waste recycling centers and other illegal dumps have been located throughout southeast Asia, and similar endeavors to monitor pollution exist all over the world. The tech companies themselves are even getting into the action as Google has begun to use its Street View cars to gather data on air pollution as they drive through communities around the world.

Whether it's monitoring deforestation, crop yields, urban growth, or helping to build a case for war crimes committed by ISIS, the full impact of this biome is immeasurable.

Click this image of the Iranian launch site for a larger view.

The nature of this tectonic shift in information sharing and having countless interested individuals involved in any particular field can also serve as a warning to hapless elected officials releasing otherwise sensitive information without going through any proper channels. 

On Aug. 30, 2019, President Trump tweeted an image taken by satellite of a failed Iranian missile test. Within hours the name of the classified satellite had been discovered, as was its orbital path and flyover time. This was done over Twitter by people who knew a little about satellites and math.

While Iran certainly knows it is being observed from above, it now also knows what actual satellite is looking at this particular launch site and what times of day it will and won't be overhead. The satellite's imaging capabilities can also largely be deduced from the image Trump sent out. Those capabilities are undoubtedly shared by other satellites taking a look at Russia and China, too. Trump's "leak" isn't the same as giving adversaries the full specifications of our spy satellites, but it was a completely pointless overshare of information.

Now, I have been rather glowing in my praise to this point but that isn't to say everything is perfect. Mistakes do happen. Things are misidentified and unverified claims can easily end up making international news before the truth ever arrives. But this isn't anything inherent to the open-source universe.

Unproven scientific reports can suddenly become "proof" that Einstein was wrong and rumors becoming "fact" that Kim Jong Un executed his uncle by a pack of rabid dogs each show sensationalism is no stranger to major media outlets.

Just because intelligence and research has been democratized doesn't mean, on the whole, that it doesn't have tremendous value or can't compete. A major and longstanding argument against Wikipedia is that "anyone can edit it". While that's true and that false or inaccurate information can be added, erroneous information can be removed or corrected just as easily. Waiting on knighted experts from a print encyclopedia to issue corrections can take years. In comparison, Wikipedia is just as accurate as those traditional repositories of information while also being far more dynamic and containing exponentially more data.

In fact, the unique qualities of crowd sourcing and OSINT has musty old government agencies looking to study the field. US intelligence agencies like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency have sought to study the capabilities of this brave new world in the hopes that OSINT might be able to augment more traditional information gathering and analysis methods.

And so, I am proud to be among the "major players", as Amy Zegart put it, when it comes to North Korea sleuthing. But, I am also proud to be one of millions of others who take part in the citizen science projects found in Zooniverse, one of the millions of Wikipedia editors, and one of countless people who believe that the future is Open.

I encourage all of you to not let your interests and passions go to waste. From subject matter experts to individuals who just want to help where they can, there's literally thousands of opportunities out there. And in the event you can't find an organization, app, think tank, or human rights group to help out or that doesn't quite fit what you're trying to do, then you can always do what I did and take the initiative for yourself.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/9/2019

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