The United States is at a critical juncture in its technological competition with China, according to a recent report from the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP), and the U.S. Government’s ability to leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT) will play a key role in maintaining a technological edge and shaping the future global order. 

About Special Competitive Studies Project

Created in 2021, the Special Competitive Studies Project is led by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, along with other national security and tech leaders. SCSP seeks to inform U.S. policymakers on strategic economic and national security implications of technological competition. The project is divided among six focus areas: technology platforms, economy, society, foreign policy, defense and intelligence.

SCSP’s mission is to make recommendations to strengthen America’s long-term competitiveness for a future where artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies reshape our national security, economy, and society. 

The project recently published their first report, “Mid-Decade Challenges to National Competitiveness,” which “sets an agenda for a strategy of technology-centered national competitiveness. The report is an initial why and what that outlines the logic for action and an agenda for the future.” SCSP will publish future reports with action plans and recommendations on how the U.S. and allied governments can carry out the broader strategy. 

“Intelligence in an age of data-driven competition”

The report dedicates a chapter to the technological and strategic challenges faced by the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) in this new age of competition. Along with embracing new technologies and harnessing artificial intelligence, SCSP calls on the IC to “leverage insights and information through open source capabilities by creating a dedicated, technology-enabled open-source entity to support U.S. decision making.” 

The exponential growth in publicly and commercially available information has outpaced the IC’s capability, or anyone’s for that matter, to fully harness open source in support of U.S. decision making and policy.

Renew focus on open source

With the explosion of open-source data and the value it has for policymakers, SCSP recommends, “The U.S. Government must place the collection of publicly available information, acquisition of commercially available information, and their processing at the center of its renewed open-source efforts.”

Aside from the need to process ever-growing amounts of data, SCSP’s recommendation for a dedicated open-source entity emphasizes the importance of tradecraft, noting that adversary advancements are driving the need for the IC to improve and professionalize tradecraft for open-source collection in an increasingly contested online environment.

As foreign targets learn how researchers or governments might exploit publicly available information to inform future policy actions, they can be expected to adjust and adapt their activities accordingly – changing URLs, putting access controls in place, altering content, or even removing it entirely. With U.S. rivals also increasingly aware of what open-source researchers are doing online and the potential policy consequences of such research, professional tradecraft is more frequently needed to access quality open-source information across barriers put up by rivals.

Establishing a dedicated open-source entity

In order to effectively utilize open-source data, SCSP recommends creating a new entity that is dedicated to carrying out open-source intelligence operations across the collection, acquisition, processing and analysis life cycle. Calls for a dedicated open-source entity are growing and the SCSP is the latest among similar recommendations by policy makers and national security think tanks over the past few years, including the CSIS report Maintaining the Intelligence Edge: Reimagining and Reinventing Intelligence through Innovation and Options for Strengthening All-Source Intelligence from RAND. And much like CSIS and RAND, the SCSP report doesn’t come to a conclusion on where an open-source entity would sit in relation to ODNI and the other existing IC components. 

“The U.S. Government has a number of options to choose from on how to stand up an open-source entity, but U.S. Government stakeholders should be mindful of several attributes that could make such an open-source entity a success:”

  1. It should be connected to and have a voice within the IC, regardless of where it sits; 
  2. It should have a hybrid workforce, including cleared and uncleared personnel, and develop expertise through time on target and promotions; 
  3. It should have a clear collection and processing mission; 
  4. It should serve as a focal point for U.S. Government absorption and integration of commercially available data; 
  5. Other IC agencies and the U.S. Government, more generally, should be able to access, search and use this data for their own queries and AI projects; 
  6. Such an entity should also serve as a gateway through which nongovernmental analysts, academic researchers and the public writ large could access open source information; and 
  7. It should be able to liaise with counterparts among allies and partners.

Information sharing

Publicly available information and subsequent open-source intelligence products are not only valuable because of the insight they provide, but also because they can be more readily disseminated among U.S. government agencies both in and out of the IC, among allies and the American public.

The U.S. Government must attempt to make select open source products a utility available to all Americans, creating a virtuous cycle of expertise between government and non-government experts.

Protecting American innovation

Competition with China is looming as the key challenge of the 21st century geopolitical landscape and requires a whole-of-government response. As National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted in his remarks congratulating the SCSP on their work, “preserving our edge in science and technology is not a ‘domestic issue’ or ‘national security’ issue. It’s both.”  Congress recently passed the CHIPS Act, which provides more than $50 billion to support domestic R&D and manufacturing of semiconductors. And President Biden recently issued an Executive Order providing guidance to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) that “bolsters CFIUS’ ability to defend against evolving risks by directing the Committee to consider, in connection with countries of concern, a new set of specific risk factors, such as whether a transaction impacts U.S. leadership in technologies relevant to national security, or presents risks to U.S. persons’ data.” 

Enhancing the U.S. Intelligence Community’s open-source collection capabilities and leveraging public and commercial data is critical to protecting these investments in American tech innovations and future global leadership.

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