Avatars in World of Warcraft: In one Osint project US intelligence agency Iarpa is infiltrating jihadist meetings in virtual hills and forests
EU member states' intelligence services are among the most jealously-guarded national assets despite five decades of integration. But two European Commission-sponsored projects on open source intelligence (Osint) are beginning to change the culture of mistrust.
Launched quietly in the Hungarian capital by the commission and the Hungarian foreign ministry in 2007, the Budapest Club has in the past three and a half years held eight meetings of EU countries' intelligence officers and private sector experts in Budapest, Bucharest, Rome and Brussels.
The first event had just 50-or-so delegates. But the last meeting, in Brussels in mid-2010, attracted over 150 specialists from 14 EU countries from both the 'old' and 'new' halves of the Union.
The Budapest mission statement, seen by EUobserver, says: "The main idea behind the initiative is to enhance sharing of ideas and open source information between EU institutions and member states in order to support crisis prevention and crisis management services."
Osint is information that can be obtained without breaking the law. It sees analysts comb through media, jihadist blogs and chat rooms, pay-per-view databases, commercial satellite images, grey literature (technical reports by government bodies) and the deep web (internet pages not picked up by popular search engines).
In one wheeze which shows how far it can go, US intelligence agency Iarpa (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) is experimenting with avatars - characters in online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft which can infiltrate jihadist avatar meetings in virtual hills and forests.
The sector has grown to the extent that Western governments rely on open sources for 80 percent to 90 percent of their security information. Unlike espionage, Osint is easier to share because it does not compromise sources in third countries.
A second EU co-funded project, the Eurosint Forum, also aims to: "Promote thinking on the development of the European Union's policies, in particular in the use of Osint in the field of security."
Founded in 2005 by private sector security firms and run out of a small office next to the commission's Berlaymont building in Brussels, the non-profit body holds at least five "workshops" a year attracting up to 40 delegates at a time from EU countries' intelligence services, EU institutions and the private sector.
In two tangible outcomes, the Budapest Club has set up a password-protected website for participants to share security updates and ideas on Osint techniques. The model is the Intelipedia - a Wikipedia-type site set up in the US so that its 16-or-more intelligence bureaux can talk to each other to help prevent another 9/11. Meanwhile, Eurosint is in charge of Virtuoso, a commission-funded scheme to produce new "middleware," or software that will enable the 11 participating EU countries to swap Osint gadgets back and forth.
The more important outcomes are intangible, however.
EU countries share classified information in other structures: they send bits of intelligence to the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen) in Brussels; security experts drop in to the EU capital for meetings of the EU Council's Counter Terrorist Group and 'Clearing House' working group; EU countries' spy chiefs and counterparts from Norway and Switzerland also meet once a year in the so-called Club de Berne.
But the two Osint clubs are different because delegates talk freely in two-day long seminars, stay overnight, mingle over drinks and dinner and make fresh personal contacts, creating a new momentum for sharing in the EU intelligence community.
"It's a truly European endeavour and it's in the direction of the Lisbon Treaty," one Budapest alumnus who did not want to be named told EUobserver, referring to treaty clauses on deeper security co-operation. "We are trying to change the culture of intelligence services in the EU. The Union is surrounded by signs of clear and present danger - are we going to stick with 'need to know' or are we going to move toward 'need to share'?"
"It's the beginning of an intelligence community at the EU level. In a way, the side-effect is more important than the main goal," Eurosint chief Axel Dyevre said.
With EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton recently installing two new security chiefs - SitCen head Ilka Salmi and crisis-management head Agostino Miozzo - it is unclear if the Budapest Club will be expanded or shut down.
One EU diplomatic contact said Ms Ashton should build up her Osint assets and specialise in early warning and prevention of man-made conflicts if the European External Action Service (EEAS) is to have an impact on world events.
"SitCen should be able to send missions to conflict-prone countries, whether it's Ghana or Somalia, Pakistan or Bangladesh, for a month at a time with a full team of interpreters. They would stick to Osint. There would be no covert action, no breaking of the law - which doesn't mean you have to say 'Hello, I'm from the EU, can I ask you some questions?'" the contact said.
For his part, David Nyheim, a private-sector Norwegian security expert and Budapest Club alumnus, noted that the EEAS needs intelligence-gathering missions to close the gaps left by internet and satellite data: "In a crisis situation, you need information from remote areas that are not covered by the internet or general media ... You need intelligence professionals with a network of informants."
Asked if WikiLeaks could be a turn-off for deeper EU collaboration, Chris Pallaris, who also goes to Budapest meetings and who runs the Swiss security consultancy i-Intelligence, said: "No. Governments will have a hard time justifying why they did not share information if a bomb goes off in, say, Sweden and people get hurt ... In terms of threats to climate security, cultural security [the black market in antiques], economic security, water security, food security, health security, like pandemics - if we're not sharing information, we're done for."