How the military harvests web-based intelligence for situational awareness

The smartphone, web and social networks are rapidly changing the way the military gathers intelligence.

U.S. Army Soldiers are lifted on board an Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter
Credit: flickr/The U.S. Army

Until pretty recently, if you were a soldier on the ground in a remote, hostile part of the world, and tasked with the job of gathering intelligence, such as situational awareness, you’d have only a few choices as to how to go about it.

You could approach the job by clandestinely setting up a ring of spotters embedded in smoky cafes, for example; or you could recruit a bunch of spies to rifle through battered filing cabinets like in a Cold War novel. Another option would be to simply monitor local TV, radio and newspapers.

That would have been pretty much the sum extent of your options.

However, that meagre choice has changed recently, with the advent of the smartphone, web and social networks.


Today’s intelligence officer takes advantage of something called “Webint,” which is a sub-category of OSINT, or open-source intelligence.

It is web-based intelligence sourced from public origin, as opposed to covertly. And it’s not that hard to do now that everything is online, including the activities of the baddies.

Zurich, Switzerland-based 3i-MIND Technologies is a Webint analytics system developer. It has built a system that collects and analyses the data.


3i-MIND’s system, called OpenMIND, searches publicly shared information across social networks, blogs, forums, video sharing sites and web pages.

Why? Forums and blogs are often used for insurgency planning and blogs tend to be active during events; video-sharing sites often show the aftermath.

OpenMIND provides the subscriber with automated investigation and analysis tools for the data. Those tools lets them “identify and derive actionable insights” relating to risks and threats, opportunities, entities, topics of interest, events and so on. It’s all based on the massive quantities of publicly-shared images, video and text existing throughout the web.


Much of that data is originally created by Internet users who regularly associate their physical locations with other contextual information when communicating online, says Geo International, a leading magazine for geospatial professionals, who has written about OpenMIND (Note: the Geo International article is behind a paywall).

The data available can include a user’s geographical co-ordinates, including bearing, altitude and distance data, according to the publication.


Once collected and analyzed that data can reveal “hidden insights important to military and defense operations,” such as threats to ground forces and strategic installations.

Terrorist recruitment efforts, leakage of information, and tensions between groups in the theatre can all be garnered, in real-time, says Geo International’s article.

That data is then “fused” with data from other intelligence sources, like that from drones and sensors, to build-up a picture of what’s going on. Alerts are then sent to the subscriber.


Geo International reckons that the broad picture will also help military organizations understand the rationale behind what’s going on.

NATO has been using OpenMIND to support the Afghan army in its reassertion of security in Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan, according to Geo International. Civil discontent specific to the presence of troops is searched for there with the system, for example.


Home locations, contact data, and other relevant information relating to threats can be obtained, along with social links between groups. 3i-MIND says hidden cells, key influencers and previously unknown members can be uncovered like this.

The entire SM-SAP, or Social Media Situational Awareness Picture is then depicted on a map.

Chatter related to post-operation intelligence also appears. That can include numbers of wounded, and text-based descriptions of the event’s aftermath from local media.


Monitoring violent extremists, tracking political social unrest, identifying terror tourists and terrain dominance for military are all related areas that can be supported with this kind of open source web intelligence.

3i-MIND says its system is “significantly more comprehensive” than a normal search engine, in part because it interrogates the deep web -- which the usual search engines don’t reach.

Add the assessment of public opinion and sentiment, and online eye-witnesses to the mix, then throw in a smartphone for the field operations people to see the data, and le Carré's and Fleming's worlds enter the twenty-first century.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon