What is OSINT and how is it Used?

Since the end of the Cold War, global societies have become more open, and the revolution and widespread use of the Internet has turned the world into a small village. Today, the majority of the world’s population has access to the Internet, and people use it to socialize, shop, communicate with peers, share files and information, work from home, and for entertainment. According to statista, 4.57 billion people were active Internet users in April 2020 or 59 percent of the world’s population. By 2030, the number of Internet users is estimated at 7.5 billion, which is 90 percent of the world population at that time, according to cybersecurity ventures. The explosive growth of the Internet and communications technology will move most human activities into what is now called cyberspace. 

 

As global societies move steadily towards digitalization, a huge amount of digital data will be produced as a result of the interactions of people and businesses in cyberspace. A good percentage of this data is publicly available, and knowing how to use this data opens up many opportunities for organizations to expand their activities and operate more efficiently in today’s information age.

 

Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) is a term that refers to all publicly available information that is used to meet a specific intelligence need. OSINT resources can take two forms, offline or online. However, with the ongoing digitalization of the world, most of the OSINT intelligence is now taken from Internet resources.

 

OSINT resources must not only be publicly available but must also be legally accessible without violating copyrights or laws protecting personal data. This fact makes the collection of OSINT information applicable to more than just security needs. For example, companies can use OSINT to obtain information about their competitors and plan to enter new markets.

 

In this article we will define the term OSINT, talk about its types, parties interested in collecting OSINT, examine the benefits of OSINT, and discuss the challenges of collecting OSINT information.  

Open-Source Intelligence Types

OSINT resources include all publicly available information. Under this definition, some people may think that “public” means only free resources, but this is not correct. For example, paid information contained in academic publications, books, and journals is also considered part of OSINT resources. OSINT resources can be divided into the following categories depending on where the data is found:

 

  1. Internet resources which encompass most OSINT resources. It includes discussion forums, blogs, social media sites, all types of digital files (files, videos, audio files, webpages, source code) available online along with their associated metadata, IP addresses and technical information (e.g. Whois records, DNS or the technology used to build the website). In addition to that, it comprises deep web databases (e.g. government records, archive data), darknet resources, and any type of info accessible online.
  2. Traditional media sources, such as TV, Radio broadcast, newspapers, magazines, or books. 
  3. Scientific and academic publications, such as research papers, review articles, technical white papers, dissertations, academic journals, theses, books, or grey literature.   
  4. Enterprise papers which include business profiles, annual reports, conference proceedings, tax records, and even immigration records (visas obtained for skilled employees).
  5. Geospatial information, such as online maps, commercial imagery satellites, and data generated from GPS capable devices. 

When the Information is Considered Open-Source?

We can consider information or data in general as open-source when it is:

 

  1. Created for a public audience (e.g. news channels and newspaper contents).
  2. Accessible to the public for free.
  3. Accessible to the public after paying a fee (e.g. Books, journals, Magazines, digital libraries).
  4. Data that can be collected without the need for a permit or in violation of a data protection law.
  5. Readable in the Surface Web (e.g. on social media platforms and everything accessible via search engines), in the Deep Web (including historical archive information) or in Darknet.
  6. Information that can be found using advanced search engine operators, such as Google dorks or Bing search operators.
  7. Information that is presented in public meetings/discussion or can be heard by any ordinary observer.

Who Needs Open-Source Intelligence?

OSINT can be utilized by different actors with various motivations. In the following, we discuss various actors and their approach to utilizing OSINT.

Business Organizations

Incorporating OSINT mechanisms into corporation processes will bring tremendous benefits and increase the overall business efficiency to respond to both inside and outside threats. We can recognize the following benefits:

 

  1. Early data leakage detection: Criminals sell or expose hacked data in the darknet after a successful intrusion. By using OSINT techniques, the affected organization can know about the data breach early and respond with the necessary protective measures to protect its confidential information (client personal information, intellectual property) and IT systems.
  2. Protect brand and enhance business reputation: By monitoring social media platforms for brand name mention, a corporation can respond to customer complaints or bad reviews of a product/service or workplace and work to solve it quietly and professionally before it becomes a public story. This effectively prevents the issue from being escalated in media and protect the company brand name. 
  3. Vendor risk management: Businesses do not work in isolation, for instance, most businesses use added services offered by third-party contractors. OSINT help corporations to identify potential vulnerabilities in third-party processes and works to counter it before it becomes a threat. 
  4. Detection of corporate data leaks: OSINT is used to search surface, deep, and dark web for any leaked data. This allows businesses to investigate the issue and identify the leak source.   
  5. Protection of physical facilities and employees: For corporations operating in troubled regions world-wide, it is vital to have situational awareness about possible dangers threatening their physical assets and even employees’ safety. OSINT can be utilized to research social media platforms, blogs, media sources, and even the darknet for indicators of possible threats.
  6. OSINT can be used by all organization types to gain useful insight about future market trends or your competitors and to better understand the public perception in a specific geographical region before releasing a specific product or service. This reduces risks and helps organizations make better-informed decisions.        

Law Firms

Lawyers and private investigators can ethically and legally utilize OSINT techniques – especially information found on social media platforms – in legal and litigation intelligence to collect evidence and research about any suspect or potential juror.

Law Enforcement Agencies and Security Services

OSINT offers the critical capability for law enforcement agencies and other security services to enhance their intelligence capability to combat crimes and protect citizens, forces, communities, businesses, and public services from organized crime, terrorism, and all kinds of cyber-related threats. As most internet users own at least one social media account, plenty of personal information can be gathered from social media platforms and Internet-based communication to gather intelligence about criminals, understand their ideology and identify possible criminals before they even commit their crimes. Even force protection is often established by analyzing OSINT information.

Black Hat Hackers and Terrorist Organizations

Criminals and black hat hackers employ OSINT tactics and techniques in the same way the good people utilize to gather intelligence about targets before launching their attack. Social engineering attacks start after gathering adequate information about the target. The collected information is used to customize the attack according to each person, thus increasing the chance of successful intrusion.

The various phases of the MITRE ATT&CK cyber kill chain.
As shown in the MITRE ATT&CK kill chain, most cyberattacks use OSINT, among other things, to carry out their reconnaissance phase.

Major Advantages of Open-Source Intelligence 

The advantages of OSINT are obvious for all organizations types. In the following, we explain the most important ones:

 

  1. OSINT is cost-effective compared with other traditional methodologies of intelligence collection, such as SIGINT or GEOINT, and has a great return on investment (ROI). Organizations with small intelligence budgets can utilize OSINT techniques or simply outsource it to the third-party vendor without spending a fortune on consultation and other expensive tools.
  2. OSINT sources are wealthy and contain information about any subject you can imagine and you can access it any time. For example, a standard Google search only scratches 4% of the web content that Google has indexed. OSINT utilizes the three layers of the web (surface, deep, and darknet) making your search cover almost all web contents.
  3. OSINT techniques can be used to discover vulnerabilities in IT systems, by applying OSINT data leak assessment. An organization can identify leaked sensitive information such as breached account credentials, open ports, insecure network services, and outdated software and operating system versions already in use.     

Open-Source Intelligence Challenges

The biggest challenge in collecting open-source intelligence is the sheer volume of digital data, the ever-increasing number of data sources, and the unreliability of the information. As the digital transformation moves steadily to include all work and live aspects, searching within this tremendous mass of structured and unstructured public data becomes too difficult and time-consuming. 

 

At Traversals, we apply machine learning techniques to equip OSINT analysts with the necessary skills and abilities to meet the OSINT challenges.

Closing Summary

Driven by the huge technological advancements and the widespread of Internet-based communications, OSINT becomes a vital component for any organization that wants to explore the range of online information that could either bring harm to the business or empower its decision-making process with actionable intelligence.

 

For us it is one of the core elements driving our intelligence solutions, such as Strategic Intelligence, Competitor Intelligence or Vendor Risk Management.

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