Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels
Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels

Open Sourcing Open Source Intelligence

In late September, I gave a talk in which she considered the connections between Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and data activism at the ‘DIGITAL CULTURES: Knowledge / Culture / Technology’ conference at Leuphana University Lüneburg. The presentation asked how OSINT might be understood through the prism of ‘data activist epistemologies’ (Milan and Van der Velden 2016).

The starting point for this interrogation is that Open Source Intelligence, despite its name, appears to have little in common with ‘open source’ cultures as we know them, for example through open source technologies. Open Source Intelligence simply means intelligence, for states or businesses, that is gathered from ‘open’ or publicly available sources. The initial question in the paper is, thus, one of terminology: What is really ‘open source’ about OSINT? And how might a critical interrogation of ‘open source’ change the way we think about OSINT? Hence the title of the talk: ‘Open Sourcing Open Source Intelligence’.

As a type of data activism, open source can be described as having its associated ‘epistemic culture’. This is a concept which refers to the diversity in modes of knowledge-making. ‘Epistemic culture’ originally comes from studies into scientific practices, and it directs attention to the ‘specific strategies that generate, validate, and communicate scientific accomplishments’ (Knorr-Cetina and Reichmann 2015, 873). It guides one’s focus toward the complex ‘relationships between experts, organisational formats, and epistemic objects’ (ibid. 873-4).

What we encounter in open source cultures is that knowledge is not legitimated institutionally, but technologically: the (open source) software function as a token of trust. The knowledge is legitimated because the software and the verification model can be reviewed, the methods are shared publicly, many of the findings are publicly shared, public learning is crucial and, ideally, expertise thus becomes distributed.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), by contrast, is a practice that seems to belong to – and to be legitimated by – formal and relatively closed institutions such as intelligence agencies. Yet the label can usefully be reclaimed to describe activist projects – such as the Syrian Archive – which seek to put open source tools and principles in the service of a different kind of knowledge-making, one that is genuinely public-oriented and collective. The question thus becomes: What can we learn from the interface between OSINT and open source? What kind of knowledge is being made, how? And how might activist forms of OSINT inform our understanding of data activism broadly speaking?

Stay tuned for the forthcoming paper, which is being co-authored with Jeff Deutch from the Syrian Archive. It will no doubt be enriched by a good discussion with the conference audience.

The abstract for the talk is available through the full conference programme (pp. 215-6).


Lonneke van der Velden is postdoctoral researcher with DATACTIVE and a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research deals with internet surveillance and activism. She is part of the editorial board of Krisis, Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, and is on the Board of Directors of Bits of Freedom.   



Knorr Cetina, Karin, and Werner Reichmann (2015) Epistemic cultures, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. James D. Wright. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 873-880.

Milan, Stefania, and Lonneke Van der Velden (2016) The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society 2(2) pp. 57-74.