As the U.S. and other NATO member governments monitor Russia’s activities and determine appropriate policy responses, the timely intelligence they rely on no longer comes solely from multimillion-dollar spy satellites and spies on the ground.
Social media, big data, smartphones and low-cost satellites have taken center stage, and scraping Twitter has become as important as anything else in the intelligence analyst toolkit. These technologies have also allowed news organizations and armchair sleuths to follow the action and contribute analysis.
Governments still carry out sensitive intelligence-gathering operations with the help of extensive resources like the U.S. intelligence budget. But massive amounts of valuable information are publicly available, and not all of it is collected by governments. Satellites and drones are much cheaper than they were even a decade ago, allowing private companies to operate them, and nearly everyone has a smartphone with advanced photo and video capabilities.
This democratization of intelligence collection in most cases is a boon for intelligence professionals. Government analysts are filling the need for intelligence assessments using information sourced from across the internet instead of primarily relying on classified systems or expensive sensors high in the sky or arrayed on the planet.