Citizen intelligence is any intelligence-type work done by citizens outside any large organisation such as an intelligence agency.*

Citizen intelligence is thriving. I don’t have any real data on that, but it seems that interesting new examples are appearing with increasing tempo:

  • An amusing recent case was when the U.S. President’s secret flight to Iraq on Air Force One was tracked by plane spotters, sharing it all on Twitter in real time.
  • More seriously, Bellingcat is increasingly well known for in-depth investigation on issues like the MH17 downing (Russians did it) and the Skripal poisoning (more Russians). This is sophisticated OSINT, and very annoying for the Russian government.
  • A third and quite different example is crisis mapping, where groups of volunteers scramble to contribute and synthesise data about a crisis such as an earthquake.

It is not surprising that citizen intelligence might be surging. Five new conditions make it possible:

  • The increasingly vast amount of information of many different types openly available on the internet.
  • Fast and sophisticated search making much of this information easily accessible
  • The internet allowing individuals with niche interests and expertise to find each other and form collaborative networks
  • New collaboration platforms such as G Suite making working together easy and efficient
  • New, widely available analytical tools (e.g., Paterva) supporting sophisticated analytical work

My hunch is that we’ll be seeing a lot more citizen intelligence in the near future.

What would that mean for traditional intelligence providers? Here are some wild speculations.

  • Citizen intelligence will become a serious alternative to traditional intelligence organisations for at least some types of intelligence work. Intelligence consumers will start listening more to citizen intelligence and sometimes even preferring it. Citizen intelligence will start putting competitive pressure on traditional organisations.
  • Citizen intelligence will innovate more quickly than traditional intelligence. Organisations will be able to learn a lot by observing, and perhaps collaborating with or even infiltrating, citizen intelligence groups.
  • Traditional intelligence agencies will start outsourcing in some ways to citizen intelligence. For example, a small national agency may start seeking competing/alternative analysis from citizen groups.

However for these things to start happening, another (sixth) condition will be required, one that facilitates the connections between those who produce and those who are interested in citizen intelligence. I’ll be saying more about this soon.

*This is my definition. The term was first coined, I think, by Robert Steele in 2002 in The New Craft of Intelligence. He described it like this:

As far as I can tell, Steele’s views have become even more… imaginative? in the decades since.

Thanks to gr8effect on Pixabay for the network image.