Created on:
April 6, 2022

The Rise of Commercial Intelligence Services

Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt


In the pre-cyberspace Cold War, espionage was the preoccupation of secret government intelligence agencies and tradecraft focused on the physical world.

Much has changed. The global security environment is far more complex. We are well into the open information age. It’s a world of big data and ubiquitous technical surveillance, where the war on truth may be the most significant challenge of our lifetime.

The CIA Deputy Director of Digital Innovation describes Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) as “the INT of first resort, informing every aspect of the intelligence community’s mission.” Commercial Intelligence Services provide an essential capability to national security, military, public safety, health and competitive business operations.



Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT)is not just reading the news, watching TV, scanning Twitter, or paying a librarian or co-op student to do your Google searches for you.

McDaniel Wicker and Patrick Butler, Babel Street, explain that for a long time, open-source intelligence (OSINT) was primarily composed of insights from foreign news sources. It was supplemental public information that analysts could layer on top of classified intelligence to gain a full operational picture. Many in the intelligence community viewed it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a mission-critical data source — something to confirm rather than to foundationally inform. That era is over.[1]

It's over for two reasons. First, the scope of open-source intelligence has exploded in the digital age, from public legal records, data sets to social media platforms and the dark web. OSINT now encompasses every online channel that bad actors use to communicate and mobilize.[2]

Second, technology has evolved to address the three major obstacles to transforming OSINT into mission-critical decisions: speed, scale and cost. The exponentially growing amount of data has overwhelmed conventional analysis tools and made it challenging for traditional organizations to deliver insights fast enough to stay a step ahead of threats.[3]



Commercial entities collect intelligence using the same methods from many of the same sources as to national agencies but under a different legal framework.

It is important to differentiate between Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) and Commercial-Sourced Intelligence(CSINT). OSINT refers to a broad array of information that the general public can access in the public domain. Conversely, CSINT is only available to the originator, describes or represents internal commercial activities, and is only acquired through a commercial transaction.[4]

OSINT/CSINT data volume has grown exponentially, requiring a shift in thinking around private partnerships. General Michael Hayden, told a crowd at CANSEC[5] that Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook), Microsoft, Telecos and data brokers have access to way more intelligence than he ever had while serving as director of both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA).

CSINT has tremendous potential to shape intelligence tradecraft, enhancing or challenging it in every form of intelligence (INT) collection.[6]



If they cannot adapt to power shifts accelerated by digital empowerment and open data, national governments, militaries, and intelligence agencies will find themselves overcome by non-state actors and adversaries usurping control of the information domain.  

The Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) explains that in the evolution of state power in cyberspace and intelligence, the "oscillation in the balance of power may be peaking, but never before could a dozen people in their pajamas meaningfully annul the monopoly on the use of force.”

While traditional agencies have remained mostly closed environments, commercial intelligence organizations benefit from being infinitely scalable using secure cloud computing, crowdsourcing and big data fusion powered by artificial intelligence. Commercial solutions can be used to observe patterns in data at a fast rate and reach more sources than traditional human-driven searches.[7]

Attempting the production of open-source intelligence (PAI, CAI) within a closed intelligence agency runs counter to culture and conventional doctrine.



Industrial power in the information domain will continue to grow and challenge traditional national security models. As seen in the current Russian-Ukraine War, the private sector will conduct more military-like cyber and intelligence operations independently and in cooperation with the state to pacing threats.

“Commercial data or Commercially Sourced Intelligence (CSINT) is already shaping business in the digital world. Governments and businesses are using it to edge out the competition. We should care because, right now, we are in the equivalent of a modern arms race to derive meaning and value from CSINT, and those who win that race will achieve strategic advantage. Those who do not will fail.” [8]


Canada’s adversaries will increase their use of private military contractors and private-sector offensive actors (PSOA) for paramilitary cyber, intelligence and influence operations requiring deniability and circumvention of the Law of Armed Combat (LOAC). Russia is recruiting mercenaries to fight in Ukraine and conduct cyber and cognitive warfare campaigns.

Ukrainian military defence operations could have been informed by using CSINT to track the Russian soldiers' mobile devices that were located in Russia and Belarus on the border of Ukraine for the last few weeks.[9] Commercial surveillance and reconnaissance satellites provide daily high-resolution imagery, detect GPS jamming and deliver ELINT of the battlefield while commercial cyber counters Russian operations.



Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence, explains that “there are highly reputable commercial intelligence organizations… [They are] not missionaries out to fix the world, but [have] enough of a moral compass to repudiate the other routes to an outsized impact online, such as trolling and hacking.”



Canada’s national security working group[10] recently stated that “secret intelligence is undergoing an existential crisis, ”as big data empowers commercial and open-source intelligence (OSINT/CSINT) services to provide timely, actionable, and cost-effective alternatives accessible to the public and private sectors.

CIA’s position on OSINT/CSINT is clear, explains Jennifer Ewbank, CIA Deputy Director of Digital Innovation: "Many questions that once had to be answered by more secretive intelligence collection are now answered with a few clicks on a mobile device. OSINT/[CSINT] is also where technological innovation makes the most rapid contributions."

The wide aperture of OSINT/CSINT is critical for a military that needs to go from sensor to shooter at the speed of cyber.



The Center for Strategic and International Studies explains that “a proliferated low Earth orbit (LEO) sensing constellations in multiple orbital planes allowing for the rapid [daily full world] revisit rates, high-resolution images, and full-motion video."[11]

The democratization of data will fuel surveillance capitalism. Ubiquitous technical surveillance(UTS), like China’s SkyNet and Sharp Eye programs, raises the prospect of a World in which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape the proliferating technologies for wholesale data collection and analysis. OSINT/CSINT and Artificial Intelligence will be seen as enablers to UTS and a counter to it. CSINT has access to the equivalent of global SIGINT.



Commercial intelligence is tightly coupled to client requirements and mission effectiveness. Companies only produce products for which there is a market and satisfied clients willing to pay for the intelligence commensurate with its perceived value.

Commercial intelligence can also deliver a curated, high-value product that is timely, actionable and cost-effective. A trusted intelligence data broker can cloak the primary intelligence priorities of clients and provide special operational security. Thus, freeing up expensive classified sources, assets and infrastructure to focus efforts without exposure.



We are entering the age of influence and information where open data is the currency of the intelligence business.

Correspondingly, we have seen a rise of both open and commercial intelligence and the dominance of cyber, soft power and influence in global affairs, national security and military power. These days, nearly all intelligence is derived from open-source methods. This information domain is predominantly owned, operated or curated by the private sector.

Hence, commercial intelligence-as-a-service has the potential to deliver unique tailored intelligence fast, precise, accurate and affordable to both public and private sectors.



Dave McMahon is Senior Technology Associate with Samuel Associates, a leading strategic consulting and government relations firm in Ottawa, Canada. Dave is also the CEO of Clairvoyance Cyber Corp and Chief Intelligence Officer of Sapper Labs Cyber Solutions. Dave has over thirty years of experience in the Intelligence Business with the national agencies and the private sector.


[1] The role of AI in open source intelligence By McDaniel Wicker and Patrick Butler,

Babel Street, 25 Jan 2022

[2] The role of AI in open source intelligence By McDaniel Wicker and Patrick Butler,

Babel Street, 25 Jan 2022

[3] The role of AI in open source intelligence By McDaniel Wicker and Patrick Butler,

Babel Street, 25 Jan 2022

[4] US intelligence is only as good as what goes into it the cyber brief by Cynthia, Saddy Eunjoo “ej” Alam and Kelli Holden march 16th, 2022

[5] CANSEC is Canada's global defence and security tradeshow hosted annually in Ottawa since 1998. It is hosted by the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI),

[6] US intelligence is only as good as what goes into it the cyber brief by Cynthia, Saddy Eunjoo “ej” Alam and Kelli Holden march 16th, 2022

[7] Today’s AI-enabled [commercial capabilities] empower intelligence analysts to leverage OSINT [to rapidly] uncover hidden threats and pinpoint the targets.

[8] US intelligence is only as good as what goes into it the cyber brief by Cynthia, Saddy Eunjoo “ej” Alam and Kelli Holden march 16th, 2022

[9] US intelligence is only as good as what goes into it the cyber brief by Cynthia, Saddy Eunjoo “ej” Alam and Kelli Holden march 16th, 2022



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