The Historical Use of OSINT Through the Centuries

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has been a crucial part of intelligence gathering and analysis for centuries, long before the advent of the internet. This article will explore the historical use of OSINT, providing some examples of its application.


Historical Use of OSINT Through the Centuries

Introduction: History of OSINT

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) refers to intelligence collected from publicly available sources. While many associate OSINT with the internet era, its roots run much deeper. The use of OSINT can be traced back centuries, with governments and organisations using publicly available information to inform their strategies and decisions.

OSINT in the Pre-Internet Era

One of the earliest examples of OSINT is found in the 19th century. 

During the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies used newspapers and other public documents to gather information about enemy troop movements, supply lines, and morale. This information was crucial in planning military strategies and predicting enemy actions.

In the early 20th century, OSINT continued to play a vital role in intelligence. During World War I, for example, the British government established the Wellington House, which used open-source information to wage a propaganda war against Germany. They analysed newspapers, books, and other public sources to understand public opinion and shape their propaganda accordingly.

OSINT in the 20th Century

BBC Monitoring: Open-Source Intelligence Collection during the Second World War

During the tumultuous period of the Second World War, information and intelligence played a pivotal role in shaping military strategies and decision-making. In this context, the BBC Monitoring service emerged as a crucial source of open-source intelligence, providing valuable insights into international affairs. This article explores the role of BBC Monitoring during the Second World War and its significant contribution to the collection and analysis of open-source intelligence.

The Emergence of BBC Monitoring

BBC Monitoring, initially known as the BBC’s wartime monitoring service, was established in 1939 with the objective of monitoring and analysing foreign radio broadcasts. Its primary purpose was to collate news, propaganda, and military information from various sources, including enemy transmissions, and provide timely and accurate reports to the British government.

Open-Source Intelligence Collection

BBC Monitoring played a vital role in open source intelligence collection during the war. Its dedicated team of linguists, analysts, and radio technicians monitored and translated broadcasts from around the world, covering multiple languages and regions. By listening to enemy radio broadcasts, BBC Monitoring gained unique insights into enemy plans, propaganda efforts, and military operations.

Gathering Military Intelligence

The service actively monitored and analysed broadcasts from Axis powers such as Germany, Italy, and Japan. This allowed the Allies to gather valuable military intelligence, including information about troop movements, strategic plans, and potential vulnerabilities. BBC Monitoring’s reports contributed to the understanding of enemy capabilities, aiding the planning of countermeasures and military operations.

Propaganda Analysis

In addition to military intelligence, BBC Monitoring scrutinised propaganda broadcasts from both Axis and Allied powers. By examining the content, tone, and messaging of propaganda, the service provided crucial insights into enemy intentions, morale, and attempts to influence public opinion. Such analysis helped shape Allied propaganda efforts and counteract enemy propaganda by exposing inconsistencies and falsehoods.

International News Monitoring

BBC Monitoring also tracked international news broadcasts, enabling the British government to stay abreast of global developments. By monitoring neutral and Allied countries’ radio transmissions, the service provided a comprehensive overview of international sentiment, diplomatic manoeuvres, and emerging alliances. This information proved instrumental in diplomatic negotiations, intelligence sharing, and forming alliances with other nations.

Post-war Contributions

BBC Monitoring’s role did not end with the conclusion of the war. It continued to operate, expanding its coverage, and adapting to the changing geopolitical landscape. Over the years, the service evolved to monitor television broadcasts, online media, and social networks, thus remaining a vital source of open-source intelligence for governments, businesses, and researchers.


BBC Monitoring played a significant role in open-source intelligence collection during the Second World War. Its monitoring and analysis of foreign radio broadcasts provided crucial military intelligence, propaganda analysis, and insights into international news. By effectively harnessing open-source information, BBC Monitoring made a substantial contribution to the Allied war effort, supporting decision-making and shaping strategies. Today, the legacy of BBC Monitoring continues as an essential source of open-source intelligence, adapting to modern media platforms and remaining an asset in the field of global monitoring and analysis.

The successful use of OSINT during World War II wasn’t only attributable to the UK. The United States’ Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service (FBMS), established in 1941, was also responsible for monitoring foreign broadcasts on behalf of Allied powers. They correlated changes in the price of oranges in Paris with successful bombings of railway bridges, demonstrating the power of open-source information.

The Impact of the Internet on OSINT

The advent of the internet has revolutionised OSINT. 

Today, analysts have access to a vast amount of information from around the world. Social media, online publications, and databases provide real-time information that can be crucial in intelligence analysis.

However, the principles of OSINT remain the same. Analysts must still sift through a vast amount of information, verify sources, and analyse data to provide actionable intelligence. The internet has simply provided new tools and sources for this age-old practice.

Summing up…

The evolution of OSINT throughout history, from the Civil War to the present digital age, underscores the enduring value of publicly available information in intelligence gathering. Whether it’s newspapers from the 19th century or social media posts in the 21st, OSINT has consistently played a pivotal role in providing actionable intelligence. As we delve deeper into the digital age, the importance of OSINT is projected to grow even further, adapting to new technologies and information landscapes.

A History of OSINT FAQs

In the past, OSINT was used to gather information about enemy movements, supply lines, and morale. It was also used to understand public opinion and shape propaganda efforts. For instance, during World War I, the British government established Wellington House, which used open-source information to wage a propaganda war against Germany.

The internet revolutionised OSINT by providing analysts with access to a vast amount of real-time information from around the world. This includes social media, online publications, and databases. However, the fundamental principles of OSINT, such as verifying sources and analysing data, remain the same.

During World War II, BBC Monitoring, and the United States' Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service (FBMS) used OSINT effectively to monitor and analyse a wide range of enemy activity as well as to correlate the impact of allied activity on the wider command and control capabilities of the occupiers. For example by monitoring and correlating changes in the price of oranges in Paris with successful bombings of railway bridges. In the Cold War era, the CIA used OSINT to gather information about the Soviet Union's military and economy from publicly available sources.

As we move further into the digital age, the importance of OSINT is likely to increase. The internet has provided new tools and sources for intelligence gathering, and as these technologies continue to evolve, so too will the methods and applications of OSINT.

Further OSINT reading: