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COMINT (communications intelligence)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Communications intelligence (COMINT) is information gathered from the communications of individuals, including telephone conversations, text messages and various types of online interactions.

COMINT efforts seek information about voice, text and signal transmissions and attempts to determine a number of intelligence considerations about them. Intelligence, in this context, is information that gives an organization or individual support for making decisions that are intended to provide them with a strategic advantage. The term is often abbreviated as “intel.”

COMINT activities are intended to determine details about the communications such as:

  • Who the communicating parties are.
  • Where those parties are located.
  • The organizational function of the transmitter.
  • Time and duration of communication.
  • Frequencies and other technical details of note in the transmission.
  • Encryption used and whether it can be decrypted.

Friendly military communications are also monitored similarly as a part of communications security (COMSEC). While intelligence communities in the U.S. have stated that COMINT is concerned only with foreign entities, the Snowden revelations show very similar tactics used on the country’s own citizens. It was disclosed, for example, that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been gathering the communications and related metadata of private citizens since at least 2001.

The term COMINT is often used as a synonym of signals intelligence (SIGINT) but it is actually a subfield of that broader area, which also includes electronics intelligence (ELINT). COMINT, like SIGINT and ELINT, is a term defined by the United States Department of Defense, and a field of data studied by intelligence communities the world over.

See also: Snowden effect

This was last updated in May 2015

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