Why it matters: Beijing’s open-source intelligence collection could give it an edge.
As the relationship between the United States and China has become more hostile, both countries are investing more in their intelligence-gathering capabilities.
With Beijing’s investments in big data management, mining publicly available information sources could give China an advantage in gathering intelligence on the United States and its allies.
While autocratic countries like China hide information about their military, the United States – as a democracy trying to respond to its public – is releasing a plethora of information about its military capabilities, doctrine and planning.
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China can mine that information, looking for material it can use for its own military advantages. For example, the report details some of the work a prominent Chinese open-source intelligence firm has done to analyze publicly available insights from the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s internal think tank. Recorded Future also outlined how China has been trying to collect intelligence from the Naval War College in Newport, RI
“The US Naval War College has a China Maritime Studies Institute and produces a lot of open source research on China,” said Zoe Haver, a threat intelligence analyst at Recorded Future. “This is done in an academic setting, but ultimately foreign governments consider this valuable information.”
Military officials did not immediately comment on the report’s findings.
Background: China collects information on the US military.
China’s ability to gather classified intelligence has grown tremendously in recent decades, and Beijing’s investment in open-source intelligence has intensified over the past decade.
The definition of open-source intelligence is broad, but Recorded Future looked at information that China’s People’s Liberation Army intelligence agencies used to help them plan and develop the military.
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Recorded Future has examined contracts the military has provided to private Chinese companies to collect a range of open-source information, including materials about the US military and its work for the defense of Taiwan.
“The PLA assumes that the United States will somehow intervene in a conflict in Taiwan, and they are working very hard to prepare for that kind of scenario,” Ms Haver said.
Much of what Beijing extracts from open source data may well be available from some Chinese spy agency. But China’s intelligence services are segregated and do not share information, according to Recorded Future analysts. And it may be easier for parts of the PLA’s intelligence community to develop open-source information about US capabilities than it is to request classified information from a sister intelligence agency.
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What’s Next: Open-source collection poses a challenge to democracies.
Recorded Future acknowledges that there are security concerns given the information the United States and its allies are making public, but cutting off widespread access to the data may not be the answer.
Instead, Ms Haver said Recorded Future hoped familiarity with Chinese open-source intelligence gathering would help private companies, the military and other government agencies better manage that risk and make it more difficult for automatic web crawlers to scrape information from public databases or websites. . . She also encouraged private companies to conduct due diligence on Chinese companies trying to buy access to their information.
“Ultimately, we don’t expect Western countries to shut down their information environments,” Ms Haver said. “That wouldn’t even be good. We value openness very much.”