Feeling the Burden: Ethical Challenges and Practices in Open Source Analysis and Journalism

An article by Benjamin Loehrke, Luisa Kenausis, Aida al-Kaisy, Devon Terrill, Kelly Smits, reproduced here with kind permission of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and the Ethical Journalism Network

January 2022

Too far ahead of the field – ethical dilemmas for journalists using open source information.

The evolution of open source information is allowing journalists and analysts to penetrate secrecy and inform their work. Sometimes, however, seeking the truth and reporting it may cause serious security implications on a large scale. “Feeling the Burden: Ethical Challenges and Practices in Open Source Analysis and Journalism” deconstructs ethical challenges in reporting on non-proliferation and international security. 

Ethical dilemmas with open source analysis are common. Analysts and journalists working with open source information have stories of feeling uneasy about publishing something. They weigh possibly risking harm to themselves, their employer, other individuals, or even international security. After publishing, they worry whether they did the right thing. These stories are shared quietly or hesitantly – compared to stories of journalistic or analytic feats—but ethical challenges are part of the day-to-day experience. Those analysts and journalists also acknowledge they could use more training, guidance, support, and focused discussion on their ethical practices.

This paper aims to help elevate those stories and perspectives. It offers observations from a series of 28 structured interviews with analysts and journalists who use open source and geospatial analysis to inform their work on international security and nonproliferation policy.

The goal of the paper is to make it easier for individuals, organizations, and community stakeholders to join discussions on enhancing their ethical practices with open source analysis. The paper isn’t a critique of existing practices. Nor does it prescribe an ethical framework. Instead, it is an attempt to learn with practitioners and help identify potential bottom-up solutions to the common ethical challenges they face.

Ethical Challenges in a Dynamic Ecosystem

These challenges aren’t necessarily new. Journalists, nonprofit organizations, and individual analysts have been using satellite imagery for decades to break news and help inform public discourse on issues of international security. In 1986, ABC News aired Landsat and SPOT images of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster within a week of the accident—one of the earliest uses of satellite imageryin a breaking news story. Before Google Earth launched in 2001, intrepid analysts at nonprofit organizations were already using satellite imagery to uncover major developments, including on Iran’s then-secretive uranium enrichment program. In these cases, journalists and analysts faced complex decisions about the
consequences of publishing the information faster than or over the requests of officials.

Today, open source analysts and journalists play prominent roles in public discourse. Analysts are part of a diffuse, diverse, innovative, capable, and widely connected community of practice. They craft intelligence products, break news, add evidence to reporting, provide analysis to law enforcement, and pierce attempts
at secrecy. Increasingly, analysts collaborate with journalists or serve as expert sources for reporting. As The Economist wrote, “The intelligence world is thus being democratised, a development which is challenging governments, reshaping diplomacy and chipping away at the very idea of secrecy.”

Convergence of Practices and Roles with Open Source

Changes in the information environment are happening quickly, even as concepts with open source evolve. At an essential level, open source information “encompasses publicly available information
that any member of the public can observe, purchase or request without requiring special legal status or unauthorized
access.”6 Examples of such information include commercial satellite imagery, maritime traffic or air traffic control data, business and property records, and information shared on social media. Similar to work within intelligence cycles, open source analysts collect, process, exploit, and disseminate information to consumers and/or the public. In this way, open source analysis seems like a familiar intelligence methodology. But the culture of open source defies those boundaries. The networked community of actors working with open source information draws in diverse
participants, including academics, journalists, hobbyists, think tank experts, human rights activists, and interested citizens. The community has normative values that encourage transparency, iteration, tinkering, and participation. The community draws in participants often motivated by play, reputation, and a sense of belonging. Those characteristics are advantageous in today’s information ecosystem, as participatory and networked communities can parse massive volumes of information and propagate findings at speed and scale.

These developments are also changing relationships between analysts and journalists. It is still common today for journalists to reach out to individual experts for background information, sourcing, and quotes. Analysts also pitch journalists on newsworthy analyses. Participatory norms in open source information, however, are creating new forms of collaboration. Many journalists follow open source analysts on Twitter as a starting point for reporting and as a means for talking with sources. Journalistic outlets may partner with open source analysts in reporting on a story and supporting it with visual evidence. Journalists can get tips from government sources and then cue trusted contacts in
the open source community to assess a development and check a government’s claims. Some outlets rely on in-house teams for open source analysis. While those teams may collaborate with other organizations or informal networks, they often prefer to work independently so they can be more transparent with methodology, are insulated from outside analysts with questionable motivations, and can better manage ethical decisions.

The community of open source analysts tracking the spread of nuclear weapons and technology—a domain famed for governmental secrecy—illustrates the roles that nongovernmental experts can play. As the quality and affordability of satellite imagery have increased—along with the explosion of data on social media and in public databases—there have been similar increases in analytic sophistication and speed by open source analysts in the nuclear nonproliferation community. Analysts today are able to combine technical and policy expertise, open source information, and imagery analysis to break news with their assessments of major international developments. The volume and type of data available to these analysts—through companies like Planet and Maxar—is growing steadily, including high-resolution, high-cadence, and synthetic aperture radar imagery, among many other forms of imagery data.12 Analysts have varied levels of professional training in imagery analysis. Some had earlier careers in the intelligence community or the military. Some take classes or seminars to learn processes and techniques behind imagery and open source analysis.
Many more have learned through practice, which contributes to a proud culture of self-taught analysts.

In spring 2021, teams of analysts followed up on public hints that China was increasing its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) forces. Within three months, maps created by a team at the James Marin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of a new Chinese ICBM field were published in the Washington Post. Analysts at the Federation of American Scientists and the Air University mapped two more ICBM fields soon after. The reports played a familiar role in the information ecosystem. Analysts at nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as Pia Ulrich and Chris Bidwell eloquently
summarize, “use compelling imagery to put forward plausible analysis and interpretations about world events. In turn, these analyses and perspectives are easily broadcast via the internet and can reach ever-growing audiences at negligible cost. This new capability results in competing narratives with regard to developing security issues that must be sifted through and adjudicated by policy-makers worldwide.” Such competing narratives can advance public understanding and help hold governments to account. “Back in the day, if the government told you something,
you had to believe it. That’s how we got the Iraq War,” said Jeffrey Lewis in an article for the Washington Post. “Our animating principle is that having a robust public debate about nuclear and missile technology in other countries is going to lead to better policies.”

Ethics, Professional Communities, and Open Source

That kind of influence carries with it ethical obligations. Ethics provide standards of behavior for what humans ought to do when faced with decisions about right and wrong. Those kinds of decisions are part of daily life. We regularly encounter ethical dilemmas where we must choose between courses of action each of which might transgress a moral principle. While people usually try to do the right thing, putting ethics into practice requires routine, conscious, and deliberative effort from individuals and communities as a whole. The practice of ethical decision making involves being aware of those dilemmas, gathering facts about a decision, evaluating options against different ethical approaches, deciding, and reflecting on the outcome. Approaches to ethics vary, including those that seek to do the most good, respect the rights of others, promote fairness and justice, or contribute to a common good.

Ethics are critically important for some professional communities—medicine, engineering, law, etc.—that hold power over others, because misuse of those privileged positions can cause harm. Those communities have ethical norms and codes that guide their conduct, facilitate accountability, help retain public trust, and steer those communities’ actions toward moral good.

Given the convergence of actors and practices using open source information, one might expect a convergence of ethical practices among those same stakeholders. Journalism has a centuries-old ethics tradition. Ethical principles in journalism, like those maintained by the Society of Professional Journalists, encourage all people in all media to “Seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm,” “act independently,” and “be accountable and transparent.” In practice, they help advise journalists on how to manage ethical dilemmas, like balancing the safety and privacy of sources against the public’s need for information. Intelligence professionals also face ethical dilemmas, particularly in intelligence collection and dissemination. In ways familiar to journalists, they balance the safety of human sources against the intelligence missions of their governments. They encounter dilemmas about rights to privacy during intelligence collection. They weigh needs for secrecy with sources and methods against the value of disseminating intelligence. The intelligence community is often characterized as amoral, an image validated by actions like the CIA’s torture of 5 detainees. Yet there is a current—among intelligence professionals and from some writers—trying to elevate individual standards of
conduct, develop professional codes of ethics, and graft principles of jus in bello onto intelligence activities.

For the open source community, development of ethical practices has significantly lagged behind their analytic abilities and the influence that their work carries. In 2019, Open Nuclear Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security hosted nonproliferation experts, open source analysts, and journalists to discuss ethical practices. Participants recognized common challenges in dealing with ethical dilemmas but acknowledged that individuals and organizations in the open source community lack resources and training on ethical practices. That discussion reverberated in the nonproliferation community, with experts helping characterize the challenges and offer potential solutions for the community to help develop its ethical standards. Such solutions take time and focused effort. Stakeholders in the human rights and international justice community spent years of intensive work to develop the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations so that the community could articulate and discuss guidelines that aim to enhance the ethics of its open source analysis. The protocol also facilitates the use of OSINT evidence in international criminal
investigations.25 Open source analysts working in nonproliferation and international security are at earlier stages and only beginning their conversations on the ethical challenges of their work.

Everybody Has a Story

Ask an analyst or journalist about a time when they were uncomfortable during decisions on whether to publish something based on open source information. Everybody has a story. For this paper we interviewed 20 analysts and 8 journalists, asking each for examples of times they felt uncertain whether to publish something in their work with geospatial and open source analysis. Below are excerpts from several interviews. Some of these stories are used with interviewee’s approval. Others have been paraphrased, revoiced, or partially fictionalized as necessary to remove identifying details. In these stories, there is a sense that individuals were often on their own without much guidance to
navigate their ethical dilemmas. Seeing the stories together, there is a picture of common challenges within the community. It is a reminder that ethical dilemmas with this work are common and not abstract.

To download the full article click here.


The Stanley Center for Peace and Security partners with people, organizations, and the greater global community
to drive policy progress in three issue areas—mitigating climate change, avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, and
preventing mass violence and atrocities. The center was created in 1956 and maintains its independence while developing forums for diverse perspectives and ideas. Visit stanleycenter.org.

Photo credit: Nuclear missile silos in western China. © 2021, Planet Labs Inc.

This article, republished here under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, appeared originally on Stanley Center.