Open Source Intelligence Versus Human Life?

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Has Wikipedia damaged its reputation as a reliable, unbiased news source?

Maybe the question itself is tongue in cheek, but serious questions have recently been raised regarding the availability of information versus the possible threat to human life.

For the second time in recent history (you may recall the 2008 issue with British Prince Harry in Afghanistan), multiple news agencies agreed to withhold certain information in order to potentially preserve a life.

Last week, New York Times Journalist David Rohde, his driver and his interpreter escaped Taliban confinement in Afghanistan. Generally, this is the first that most people had heard of the incident in the first place, despite the fact that Rhodes and his team had been held hostage for seven months.

Believing that "publicity would raise Mr. Rohde's value to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival", a loose confederation of Newspaper Editors, beginning with the New York Times Editor, agreed not to cover the story in order to avoid what they had perceived to be danger to their reporter.

Wikipedia, however, proved to be a different story. Operating under the philosophy that "everyone is an editor, Wikipedia traditionally encourages the free exchange and dissemination of ideas. Contacted by The Times, however, they faced a dilemma. Should they, in effect, censor news submissions regarding the incident, or refuse to do so at the possible (and, clearly, un-provable) risk to these men?

Wikipedia Co-founder Jimmy Wales made the determination that it was their responsibility to not print potentially dangerous information. This, of course, came with challenges. How could they justify disallowing edits and freezing certain pages without raising suspicion, and potentially bringing more awareness to the issue? A particular anonymous user based in Florida was particularly persistent in attempting to post information on the kidnapping, and could not, of course, be contacted to explain the reason for the multiple "unedits".

Similarly, a colleague of Rohde's at The Times, Michael Moss, begin editing the Wikipedia entry in order to reflect the pro-Muslim stories covered by Rhodes in the past, knowing that the Taliban has a solid grasp of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), and would surely research their captive in order to assess his value.

Clearly, another example of OSINT and countermeasures to its effectiveness... This is a scenario that each of us face to varying degrees on a frequent basis. While we may not be halting the spread of news to save a life, we certainly are avoiding the publication of certain pieces of information that could represent a threat to us or a benefit to an adversary. Will you allow the press release to mention the upcoming security system overhaul ? Will you allow the news reporter to take pictures inside your facility (and while you're wearing your badge)? The Taliban are not the only ones that exploit OSINT , and your adversary is not always an obvious threat.

See the NYT version of the story at

And the current Wikipedia "talk page" addressing the issue can be seen at (including very interesting arguments for and against)

Note: This article is NOT a position or statement on free speech or censorship. This message is meant to bring a relevant reminder to the value and potential issues surrounding Open Source Intelligence to the reader. Regardless of one's personal beliefs on the issue, it is worth noting that a) information is difficult to contain once it hits the 'net and b) that same information can be potentially damaging to individuals or groups.

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Chris R Cox has 1 articles online

Chris Cox is the President of the Operations Security Professional's Association.

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Open Source Intelligence Versus Human Life?

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This article was published on 2010/03/31
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