The Unique Value of Open-Source Intelligence Tools in Investigations

June 2022

Technological developments in digital information have elevated intelligence and investigations capabilities beyond anything imagined during the Cold War era, especially with the introduction of the World Wide Web, “smart” devices, modern satellites, cryptography, and biometrics. In law enforcement, digital investigations and forensics tools have also progressed and developed, leading to greatly increased speed and accuracy to close cases successfully.  When these collections and analysis methods are supplemented with machine learning, the means for law enforcement to combat crime are improved significantly.

Considering the new ways in which agencies are able to collect classified information, it may surprise many people that open-source intelligence tools are among the most valuable available in most types of investigations and analysis. Open-source information (OSINT) is available to the public and requires no special access through clearances or warrants, although access may require certain memberships or subscriptions. OSINT consists of all information that is published or broadcast for a public audience, available to the public by subscription or purchase, can be seen or heard by any casual observer, made available at a meeting open to the public, published online (forums, social media, message boards, blogs, comments, articles, open letters, and propaganda, etc.). These sources are not only present on the surface web, but also on the deep and dark webs. No special documentation or legal actions are required to gain access to open-source information, yet it makes up the bulk of the information used in most investigations. Open sources usually provide so much information that optimally exploiting the unstructured data is an overwhelming challenge for the investigator or analyst without making use of cutting-edge analytic solutions.

Why is OSINT Important?

OSINT makes up the majority of applicable information

One of the primary reasons that OSINT is crucial to investigations is that it usually makes up the majority of the intelligence available and used for a given case.  Even the US Intelligence Community, which incorporates every variety of the most sophisticated means available to gain classified information, takes the majority of its information from open sources.

OSINT is easily accessible

OSINT is, by its nature, readily accessible without the legal and technological requirements needed to gain secret, classified, or otherwise guarded information. In some cases, the most pertinent investigation questions can be answered entirely with OSINT because the “puzzle pieces” needed to discern the picture are already available. As an added benefit, the lack of a need for other collections methods has the potential to save an organization the valuable resources of money, equipment, and time.  Depending on the situation, an individual or agency may need to conduct investigations relying exclusively on OSINT, with no access to classified or law enforcement-sensitive information. This is usually the case for private sector organizations without access to clearances or warrants.

If an investigation must be conducted only with publicly available information, using the most advanced analytics software and solutions are all the most critical for success.

OSINT helps investigators better manage and apply scarce resources

Open-source intelligence tools are not limited for use only for OSINT investigations. They are frequently used in conjunction with a number of specialized information collection methods, including human intelligence (HUMINT), geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT), and other sensitive data sources.  OSINT often constitutes a large portion of the overall information applied to the investigation, but other collections methods are required to complete the project. Even the most complex, multi-faceted analytical projects often begin with an open-source intelligence investigation.

How is Open-Source Data Used?

OSINT often forms the base of an investigation

In case of classified analytical processes, open-source intelligence techniques often serve to provide the foundational information that influences the direction and planning of more specialized information gathering. OSINT can be used to begin the analysis, leading to the identification of intelligence gaps that can be addressed through other collection methods.

Top OSINT techniques

Any in-depth investigation incorporating open-source information is likely to require the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. This is primarily due to the sheer volume of information that is available in social media, public records, posted pictures, geographical data, publications, and endless other types of sources. The amount of data points in an investigation can range into the billions, so sorting, processing, vetting, analyzing, and packaging the needed data is beyond the scope of any team of human analysts. Fortunately, there are companies that specialize in providing customized open-source intelligence tools for investigations. In ideals scenarios, an OSINT platform is customized specifically for the types of investigations to which it will be applied. For instance, law enforcement intelligence analysis requires a different type of platform compared to the typical financial analysis platforms used by private sector corporations.

OSINT investigations can be active or passive, seeking out information to answer specific questions, or monitoring to flag certain information within the given parameters of interest to the investigators. OSINT can be applied to criminal investigation tools, public records searches, crime prediction systems, social media data mining, dark web monitoring, image recognition, identity investigation, and keyword analysis.

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