Research (Insikt)

Private Eyes: China’s Embrace of Open-Source Military Intelligence

Posted: 1st June 2023
By: Insikt Group®


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is using new collection, processing, and analysis technologies to exploit the massive amount of open-source information available from the internet and other sources for military intelligence purposes. A growing ecosystem of private companies, state-owned enterprises, state-run research organizations, and universities is supporting the PLA’s push to leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT) by providing research services, platforms, and data. The PLA almost certainly views OSINT as an increasingly valuable source of military intelligence that can support decision-making and necessitates the use of new collection, processing, and analysis technologies, which the PLA and China’s defense industry are actively developing.

The PLA and China’s defense industry almost certainly take advantage of other countries’ open information environments to extract OSINT from foreign governments, militaries, universities, defense industry companies, scientific research organizations, think tanks, news media outlets, social media platforms, forums, individuals, commercial data providers, print media, radio broadcasts, satellites, and other sources. This OSINT almost certainly provides the PLA insight into foreign military capabilities, facilities, doctrine, decision-making, weapons, equipment, science and technology, exercises, training, intelligence, and deployments, providing a clear intelligence advantage.

In addition to supporting decision-making, Chinese observers have suggested more specific uses for military OSINT as well, such as carrying out long-range maritime target tracking, enabling early warning of crises, supporting precision strikes, countering enemy propaganda, facilitating domestic science and technology innovation, and supporting training and talent development.

This report profiles 5 private Chinese OSINT providers that serve the PLA, including providers that mainly sell platform and database products, providers that primarily offer research and analysis services, and providers that specialize in remote sensing data. The PLA very likely uses this data to support decision-making and better understand potential foreign adversaries in preparation for future conflicts. Given that China is very unlikely to open up its information environment, and that Western countries are very unlikely to close off their information environments, the PLA will very likely maintain its advantage over Western militaries in OSINT.

To read the entire analysis with endnotes, as well as receive more information about the author, Zoe Haver, click here to download the report as a PDF.