The importance of open source intelligence in the era of social media
What is open source intelligence?
A website you browse, a YouTube video you watch, a blog or social media post you read. This is all publicly available data referred to as Open Source Intelligence or OSINT.
Before the Internet, open source intelligence was largely gathered from local newspapers, leaflets, church eulogies and other forms of publications. These are still a part of OSINT, but the majority of intelligence is now gathered from the Internet.
Why is it important?
We are seeing a growing trend in illegal products and services being sold online and on social media. Drug dealers, for example, now have an online public platform to advertise their products, where they feel they run less risk of being caught because they cannot physically be seen behind a computer screen. Many will overtly display their products on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat, knowing that if their account gets shut down, then can open another account in just a few minutes.
An example of photos and videos of illegal narcotics posted on Twitter.
OSINT for investigatory purposes can be critical in these scenarios. Although the user is not likely to use their real name and provide their real contact details (however dumb criminals do exist!), intelligence can still be gleaned from a social media profile. As one account gets shut down and another one pops up, investigators can use OSINT tools and techniques to follow the user from account to account. These accounts and their social network can then be monitored until enough information is gained to identify:
- Evidence of criminal activity
- The account holder
- Their criminal network
When a suspect’s social media profile gives little away, this in when their direct network connections are analysed. These connections are likely to be the most useful sources of information. A person’s social media profile (if public) can tell an investigator everything they need to know about them. They can immediately identify their family and friendship circle. The town they live in. The school they attended. Where they went on holiday last summer. If they have children. What their plans are for New Year’s Eve 2017. All this information can be used to track down criminals, their network and recent activity.
Social network analysis using our social media analytical tool, WeLink
Example geolocation feature on Facebook
Example geolocation feature on SnapChat
Social media is not the only strand. Open source intelligence can be gathered from online blogs and forums, communications apps, the news media and the dark web (check out last month’s blog post on the dark web). And investigations are not only limited to law enforcement. Effective OSINT gathering is essential for journalists, cyber security professionals and in the corporate world, such as the banking sector, to detect potential fraud, phishing scams, money laundering, counterfeit production and other issues.
Most people have heard a story about a company employee posting something inappropriate on social media and getting in trouble for it. Or candidates being vetted for recruitment through their social media and not getting the job because of a photo they posted in 2010. The basic concept behind this kind of due diligence is open source and social media intelligence gathering. It is therefore important for a company’s HR department to be skilled in OSINT and know the best and most up to date tools and techniques.
Marketing & Advertising
Remember the time you were looking for some new trainers online? Or flights to New York? Then suddenly, ads started to appear on your Facebook homepage for the exact trainers you were looking at and last minute flight deals from London Heathrow to JFK. This isn’t a coincidence. Tracking software is used for targeted and bespoke online marketing. Tracking software (as the name suggests) tracks a user’s online activity and advertises relevant products, services etc. Social networking sites have also become a key tool in the marketing and advertising world, so most companies need to have a strong social media presence and social media experts in place to implement an effective online marketing strategy.
Protecting your cyber footprint
Then comes the flip side of the coin. Protecting your own cyber footprint so you cannot be tracked online. Every day Internet users need to know how to avoid making the kinds of mistakes on their own social media account that could potentially get them fired or miss being hired for a new job. Social media users need to know how to have their security and privacy settings locked down. And how to prevent online tracking from the tracking software described above. Do not make the mistake of thinking what you do online is not being looked at by third parties. This can sometimes be a third party with malicious intentions, such as hackers looking to exploit vulnerabilities.
An example of OSINT in action...
A man who posted a Facebook message calling for all British Muslims to be killed in the wake of the Manchester attack was been jailed for a year. Keegan Jakovlevs pleaded guilty to publishing material with the intention of stirring up religious hatred.
The 22-year-old was sentenced for the crime, which is made illegal by the Public Order Act 1986. Prosecutors said Jakovlevs posted his message shortly after the bombing at Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017 and that it was taken down shortly afterwards.
“Jakovlevs’s Facebook message expressed sympathy for the families of those caught up in the bombing but then, using racist and offensive language, he called for every Muslim in the country to be killed,” a spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said.
“The prosecution argued that Jakovlevs’s single message was particularly serious because it was posted so soon after the Manchester bombing when public emotions were running high.” The CPS said the message was accessible to his 2,154 Facebook friends “at the very least” and to other members of the public.
“Overall, there was potential for it to have been seen by a very large number of people and for serious harm to have occurred in addition to the obvious fear and distress suffered by any member of the Muslim community who may have seen it,” prosecutors added.
Who could benefit from OSINT training?
In the digital age, where social media use is prolific, everyone could benefit from OSINT training. Whether to learn how to perform online investigations more effectively, or simply how to be safer online and protect yourself, OSINT training is important. Some example professions that would benefit include:
- Risk management professionals
- Fraud prevention professionals
- Crime investigators
- Online investigators
- Law enforcement officers
- Military and security agencies
- Researchers / analysts
- Marketing and advertising professionals
- Journalists and media professionals
- Social media strategists
- Head-hunters / recruiters
- Financial organisations
- Legal professionals
- Insurance professionals