This essay examines two forms of intelligence collection, namely signals intelligence (SIGINT) and open source intelligence (OSINT), with a view to determining whether the collection methods can be ranked in terms of importance. To this end, this essay will describe SIGINT and OSINT, with a focus on outlining the relative advantages and disadvantages of each method. It will be shown that any attempt to 'rank' collection methods in terms of their importance is only productive insofar as it is necessary to effectively direct the most suitable collection method against an intelligence target. Moreover, it will be argued that OSINT has a uniquely significant, although not more important role, in serving as a foundation upon which all other collection methods can be based.
Signals intelligence (SIGINT)
A description of SIGINT
SIGINT is typically defined as consisting of three sub-types:
communications (COMINT) - e.g. phone or internet traffic;
electronic or non-communications (ELINT) - e.g. radar emissions; and,
Foreign Instrumentation Signals (FISINT) - e.g. emissions associated with the launching of missiles or satellites.1
More generally, SIGINT involves the collection and analysis of electromagnetic transmissions associated with communications, radars, and weapons systems of intelligence targets.2
Not specifically covered in the above definitions (which historically refer only to the collection of information 'in motion') is the increasingly popular technique of computer network operations (CNO), which involves the deliberate acquisition of information that is 'at rest' - in layman's terms, hacking.3
Advantages of SIGINT
SIGINT has a number of advantages over other forms of intelligence collection, incl...
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...arge proportion of the raw data is inaccurate, out of date, biased, or otherwise useless.13
From an analysis of the relative advantages and disadvantages of SIGINT and OSINT, it is evident that, for a particular intelligence requirement, one collection method may be portrayed as 'more important' than the other. However, in terms of the whole intelligence collection and production process, it is infinitely more helpful to assess collection methods with a view purely to directing towards a target the method most likely to produce results, rather than to take a comparative view that tries to establish which method, per se, is more important than another. Rather, it is becoming an increasingly accepted premise that all source collection and analysis is the best way to ensure the most accurate and unbiased intelligence products are provided to policy makers.
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