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An interview on Open Source Intelligence with Efren Torres, scholar and intelligence practitioner

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I am simply excited to publish this interview with Efren Torres, an intelligence practitioner and scholar, expert on intelligence analysis, open source intelligence (OSINT), and intelligence broadly understood. I had the pleasure to meet Efren several times at ISA and IAFIE conferences. I must confess that his ISA 2019 panel was one of the best I ever heard – and the competition is quite high! Indeed, the intelligence studies is still mainly interested in grounding and understanding public intelligence, namely intelligence as a state institution(s). Efren Torres is the first who started to push the experience of the private sector forward also in academic contexts. Efren is a person able to wear several hats at the same time with elegance and quality. Indeed, he is an intelligence practitioner, scholar, trainer, and educator. This interview explores several hot topics from the nature of OSINT to some open issues inside intelligence education. What else can I add to this fantastic premises? Then, it is with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet, is one of the leading philosophical blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Efren: thank you!

1. How would you like to present yourself to the Italian readers and to Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?

Sure. My name is Efren Torres. I am an intelligence professional with over seven years of experience currently practicing in the private sector. I have held various intelligence-related positions where I was responsible for the reporting of unfolding events and topics such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, the Ebola pandemic, violent riots, drug cartel activity and anarchist behavior. I currently deal with various threats ranging from corruption to drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorist financing, among other related topics, mainly conducting investigations and advising decision makers. In addition to this, I am a part-time intelligence scholar as the Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of European and American Intelligence Studies (JEAIS). I am also the founder/head of the Intelligence Practitioner’s Immersion Program, a free apprenticeship program designed to teach graduate students and early-career professionals how to operate and succeed in a protective intelligence unit within the corporate world.

2. What is your background, why you did decide to be an analyst, and how it helped you in being a good analyst?

My background is in intelligence studies. I attended various schools in the United States and the United Kingdom such as the University of California at Irvine, the University of Cambridge, Aberystwyth University and Brunel University where I obtained formal education in the area of psychology, intelligence studies, terrorism and international security.

As a kid, I always enjoyed hunting down information and filling knowledge gaps. I knew that I wanted to be an intelligence professional since I was a freshman in high school; however, I did not know in what capacity. During my senior year, I took a psychology class and became interested in the human mind and how the brain works towards reasoning a problem. This led me to choose the intelligence analyst path. I decided to pursue a degree in psychology, and, for my postgraduate education, I focused on intelligence-related degrees that would allow me to build a solid foundation for a career in intelligence analysis.

My education has helped me understand the intelligence tradecraft at a very high level; however, nothing trumps on-the-job training. Take this as a mini critique of the quality of some degrees being offered in the realm of intelligence and security; no academic certification prepares you to fully function as an intelligence analyst from the get-go. I have noticed that, while degrees in the area of intelligence and terrorism do provide students with historical, theoretical and conceptual understanding of these topics, they rarely provide students with hard skills that can be used as a distinct advantage when applying for a first job in intelligence. This is a brutal and highly competitive field, and not everyone manages to enter our profession. So, to answer your question, my education gave me “good to have” knowledge, but all the “need to have” knowledge was acquired on the job. I believe that students of intelligence analysis would benefit from a more hands-on approach to the tradecraft; unfortunately, a lot of the higher education institutions offering degrees in intelligence rely on the literature and do not conduct many simulations to expose students to the real dynamics of the field. This is the aim of the IPIP program – to fill in the gaps left by higher education institutions in the area of Open Source Intelligence collection and analysis.

3. How would you describe Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and what is its difference with Open Source Information? 

This is a question I ask all applicants that want to join the apprenticeship. At this time there is no consensus on the definition of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). There are many interpretations out there. I will tell you my understanding of it. So, let us address this in order. From a general perspective, we can observe that Open Source Data (OSD) becomes Open Source Information (OSINF), which, once exploited, becomes OSINT. To elaborate on this a little bit more, OSD are individual bits of information that on their own do not tell much, but when put together, it tells a story, has meaning, context and a particular use; for example, OSD can be stand-alone pictures or graphs; they do not tell much on their own, but when certain context is added, they become news articles, books,  magazines, newspapers, etc. This can be regarded as OSINF. Now, once OSINF is collected, analyzed and has answered a specific intelligence question/requirement in the form of an intelligence product only then can this be considered as OSINT. For intelligence purposes, OSINF is not worth much on its own if it is not analyzed. As a stand-alone, OSINF is nothing but just public information with no real intelligence relevance. Aside from concepts and definitions, I teach my students to view OSINT as a two-fold process consisting of production (the collection, exploitation AND analysis of OSINF to address an intelligence question or requirement) and delivery (an intelligence dossier or oral briefing derived from collected/analyzed OSINF).

Now that I have talked about my understanding of OSINT, I want to shift focus to an issue that not many colleagues like to openly discuss. Believe it or not, there are many influencers turned “intelligence professionals” on social media that profess to know what OSINT is but provide wrong definitions. I have zero tolerance for this. OSINT has become so popular in recent years that the term itself is being used incorrectly to describe the mere identification of public information. As I mentioned, there are many OSINT influencers out there on social media that are teaching the wrong concepts. I recall watching an introduction to OSINT video where the “instructors” jumped right into geolocation and the use of databases to trace people. They gave no OSINT background knowledge; they made no reference to intelligence at all. It is a highly inexperienced approach. These open source hobbyists basically convey the message that stalking people on social media, doing geolocation via reverse image searching on Yandex or using Mapbox or Google Maps is OSINT. There are many “OSINTiers” out there that think like this, and it is highly problematic. Now, yes, there are many different points of views regarding OSINT, but from a pure intelligence perspective, this is highly misleading and shows that these influencers have no real understanding of intelligence or experience working in the intelligence domain. While the liberal use of the term OSINT may be innocuous, this can create a lot of significant misunderstandings for those students that want to be serious about a career in intelligence. The bottom line is that it is important to understand basic intelligence terminology.

4. It is often said that 90% of all the intelligence outcomes produced by the agencies is provided by open sources. Do you believe there can be any kind of intelligence without Open Source?

I would actually argue that more than 90% of all intelligence comes from open sources. All the different collection disciplines (HUMINT, SIGINT, OSINT, SOCMINT, etc.) are different parts of a puzzle that when put together allow intelligence professionals to provide decision-makers with a complete picture. If we omit any one of these collection disciplines, then we will have an incomplete representation of an issue. Intelligence must be timely and accurate and with an incomplete picture you cannot be neither timely nor accurate. OSINT is a vital intelligence collection discipline; it will remain as such.

5. You are a professional analyst but also a trainer. Can you speak a little bit about your training course, internship, and journal?

My wife, Daniela Baches, and I manage the Journal of European and American Intelligence Studies (JEAIS), which is a revamped version of the Journal of Mediterranean and Balkan Intelligence (JMBI). The mission of the journal is to provide intelligence scholars from other regions with the opportunity to contribute to the intelligence literature. If you think about it, the intelligence literature has mostly been developed in the Anglosphere with limited input by academics from other regions. In addition to this, the mission is to elaborate on topics that have been neglected by the current literature such as the role of traditional intelligence in the private sector. We have been the only academic journal, as far as I know, that has published a volume on this topic.

The IPIP/apprenticeship is currently being offered under the auspices of JEAIS. As mentioned before, I aim at providing hands on training to recent graduates and early-career professionals on OSINT collection/analysis and on how to operate in a protective intelligence unit in the private sector. This training course derives from my experience training personnel and developing highly functional intelligence units in the corporate world. The program is free of cost, but it is very demanding. My aim is to expose all of my students to worst-case scenarios and to have them learn through multiple instances (live tactical drills, risk assessment production or oral briefings) where they fail. As you know, failure is the best teacher. My strategy is to break them and then rebuild them as resilient, flexible, creative, adaptive and highly skilled junior intelligence analysts. By the end of the course, the students that make it (after all, I do drop participants that are either not a good fit or that have a poor performance) are razor sharp and ready to be high performers at any Global Security Operations Center (GSOC). Any of my students will be able to tell you that I push them beyond limits, but I do so because I know how brutal the world of intelligence can be. They need to be ready for it.

6. How do you see the future of OSINT, and what would you suggest to anybody who would pursue a career on intel today?

We are currently experiencing what the Rand Corporation once labeled as the second generation of OSINT (foreign media, and other open sources that now include social media and internet sources) and slowly transitioning to a third generation of OSINT, which will likely involve more automation and tools that implement AI and/or machine learning. The current second OSINT generation is already full of challenges – because of the plethora of sources available on many digital platforms, it is hard to separate the signal from the noise, fake news from reliable news, information from disinformation and so on. Current analysts need to be competent enough to judge the reliability of sources. Future OSINT analysts will need to learn coding languages and will need to know how to evaluate sources properly. There is too much noise out there, and it takes talent, skills and patience to navigate through the overflow of information.

I could write many pages providing advice in this area. My main advice to those that want to pursue a career in intelligence is to stay away from this field if they only want to do it because they “think” it is cool. This is the wrong reason to pursue any career. The intelligence profession is very different from how it is depicted in movies. If any of the readers are inspired to join the world of intelligence because they watched shows like Homeland, Designated Survivor or Jack Ryan then they likely do not belong here. In my experience, only the successful professionals were drawn to this field out of a sense of duty and a passion for knowledge seeking. There is a lot of reading that needs to be done in order to understand complex information; you need to have a lot patience for this. I have noticed that those that joined for the wrong reasons (i.e. because they saw a tv show or simply wanted to be like James Bond) left the field in bad terms within three years. Your audience probably does not want to hear this, but this field is not for everyone.

Those pursuing a career in intelligence should always keep a good head on their shoulders. Be humble and never think you are superior. This is a small community, and if you have a bad reputation then this will likely follow you everywhere you go. I have seen this happen multiple times. Also, you are not Jack Ryan or James Bond, and the reality is that you will not save the world from chaos. Always keep in mind that intelligence is a tool designed to inform decision makers. Do your job to the highest standards, but do not take your job too serious. Yes, we do important work that matters, but we also have personal lives and need a good work-life balance. I have seen many junior analysts completely immersing themselves into the role that they end up burning out quite soon. Keep in mind, that while there are some amazing things we do in this field, you need to leave your analyst hat at work and never bring it everywhere with you. Never sacrifice personal life over career; you will regret it.

7. How can our readers follow you?

Unfortunately, due to the nature of my job, I cannot be very public on social media. I do have my LinkedIn account but do not publish much. Similarly, I do not use other major platforms except for professional/investigative purposes – but those profiles do not contain any personal or traceable information.

8. Five keywords that represent you?

Perceptive, analytical, resilient, direct, and demanding.

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