Introduction to Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

There’s a lot of buzz around open source intelligence, but like with a lot of other buzzwords, the fact that people are talking about it doesn’t mean that everyone is 100% clear on what it actually means. Open source? Like open source code? Not exactly. 

What is open source intelligence?

Open source intelligence, or OSINT, refers to available, free, legally collectible, public data about an individual or an organization. Although intelligence usually refers to secret data, accessed by hacking into emails, websites, and other private sources of information, OSINT uses information that is accessible to everyone—if any special skills or tools are required to access a piece of information, it isn’t open source. 

OSINT includes a wealth of data, including information from social media, websites, messaging apps, deep web databases and more… It isn’t limited to text either, it also includes and images, videos, and audio. It isn’t even limited to the internet—it can also include printed material like archived newspapers, data that’s available to the public by request (for example, census data), data that’s accessible by subscription or purchase (for example, industry journals), or data that was made available at an event or place that was open to the public.

Where do you get open source intelligence?

Just because it’s online and accessible, doesn’t mean that it can be accessed through a Google search. It turns out that Google has only indexed a tiny portion of the internet, .004% according to Google CEO Erid Shmidt, and other web search engines aren’t any better. The rest of the internet, including the majority of OSINT data, is part of what’s known as the “deep web” or the “dark web”. 

And there’s a lot of data out there. Even if you look at one source that is indexed by Google, let’s say Facebook, you’re still talking about hundreds of millions of data points—every day. So while, yes, it’s available, the sheer quantity of the data can make finding what you need feel like looking for a needle in a haystack unless you have the right tools and expertise. 

OSINT tools, the tools that help you access and filter open source data, include data mining, various crawling techniques, data extraction, analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI).

What is OSINT used for?

The first people to take advantage of available data are often the bad actors, and OSINT is no exception. Criminals frequently use OSINT to identify vulnerabilities and collect information on their targets. 

The good news is that the targeted businesses and organizations have access to the same information, and they can use OSINT to protect themselves. For example, OSINT can be used for penetration testing or ethical hacking, or to preemptively identify information that can be used against an organization or an entity.  It can be used in corporate security to discreetly identify and mitigate potential internal and external security threats and risks, identify suspicious behavioral patterns, track stolen assets, enhance work-site integrity, and generate actionable intelligence insights. Financial institutions often use OSINT as part of their Know Your Customer (KYC) due diligence process in order to prevent fraud, and politicians and policymakers can use OSINT to gauge fluctuations in public opinion. 

How can you make the most of OSINT?

In order to make the most out of OSINT, you need to: a) be clear on what you’re looking for and b) use advanced tools to help you connect the dots between the millions of data points. 

Due to the scope of OSINT data, you can’t just start sorting through it and hope that you find something worthwhile (not gonna happen). It’s essential to take the time to define what you need to know, and what type of data is going to help you find it out. 

The next step is to use a tool that can help you filter and group information into useful and actionable insights using smart analytics and AI. For example, Espy offers a full suite of OSINT platforms for mission-critical operational needs and real-world security threats that allow users to generate highly accurate and reliable profiling data from dozens of open sources with only one click. Espy’s Darknet Intelligence Suite helps intelligence agencies and businesses navigate content that isn’t indexed by Google in order to identify and monitor targets, mitigate threats to public safety, and provide real-time information about suspicious behavior. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the tools that are out there. 

OSINT can be a critical tool for businesses and organizations in a variety of fields. The right tools can help you get started, and no time is better than now. 

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