You may not have already known this, but OSINT plays a key role in the maritime environment when it comes to dealing with risk assessment, piracy, and terrorism. If you didn't, don't worry, this article will provide you with a solid briefing on the subject!
DEFINING THE MARITIME DOMAIN
First, what is the maritime environment? In a military setting, the maritime environment is three-dimensional, these include surface, sub-surface, and the air domain. It also includes ports, islands, and key infrastructure that directly affect what happens at sea. In a military setting, OSINT is not exceptionally reliable when you want to track a submarine in the Atlantic or find a ship in the middle of the Pacific, yet it still plays a key role in providing hints and leads on where to start looking for other types of threats.
At the tactical level OSINT can be used to gain basic situational awareness. Some vessels receive shore support but still constantly monitor unclassified sites that track maritime traffic by using the ship’s automatic identification system (AIS). Other military vessels, depending on their area of operation, also constantly monitor government and NGO’s maritime crime maps such as the ICC IMB Piracy & Armed Robbery Map. These are populated by merchant ships and law enforcement agencies as soon as they experience an attack. The private sector is also constantly monitoring these free sites, but major companies provide even better-paid services for real-time data from ports, vessels, and container ship events.
These are amazing tools for anyone filling a port threat report or someone trying to populate a threat map in a dangerous waterway. Some of the most popular companies that do these are the following:
- Veson Nautical
- Maritime Business Intelligence
- IHS Markit
- Dryad Global
At the operational level OSINT becomes a bit trickier to implement since a submarine or ship will never update its Facebook account on its current location (yes, for PA reasons most warships have a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram account nowadays). Yet, depending on the ship, it is important to follow these accounts and the people that follow them, for most of the time they are family members and the sailors themselves. This is time-consuming and requires a lot of manpower but if done correctly it can reveal interesting things once a ship makes it to a port and gets Wi-Fi (nothing more dangerous than a bored sailor with a Wi-Fi connection).
CI agents, MPs, interior security forces, or criminal enforcement members are sometimes too overwhelming to monitor the social media posts from all their members. This allows soldiers, sailors, terrorists, militiamen, narcos, and gang members to occasionally post a picture that unintentionally shows a landmark, a street, a license plate, a new weapon, a person of interest, or even a tattoo that helps ID them.
This happens more commonly than you think since some criminals want to show off their money, terrorists their exploits, pirates their pick-up trucks, and sailors the port they been at. This helps some private companies deal with countries like Iran, Libya, Ukraine, and Yemen, where you never know if you are being approached by a maritime militia conducting an “inspection” or simply criminals. A downfall of this method is that if OPSEC and PERSEC (most first world militaries are more disciplined in these aspects) are applied correctly you will end up wasting a lot of time doing SOCMINT.
A better method to employ OSINT is at the strategic, and somehow still at the operational level. This method goes back to the basics of OSINT techniques from WW2 where the OSS and ONI collected newspapers and radio broadcasts from the entire world. I have found that the most effective use of OSINT in a military setting is simply to monitor events happening around the operation so you can obtain leads worth looking into and exploiting with different intelligence disciplines such as IMINT and SIGINT. Law enforcement does this all the time to start investigations and get warrants. As for the private maritime intelligence agencies, this is their main way of assessing dangerous sea lines of communications.
The maritime environment is such a complex domain that not a single intelligence discipline can be favored to get the job done, all must be properly fusion in order to obtain the best results, including OSINT.