OSINT is an acronym you’ll often come across in the world of cybersecurity and fraud fighting. Short for open-source intelligence, OSINT has an essential role to play in various investigations.
But what is OSINT investigation? In a nutshell, an open-source intelligence or OSINT investigation involves the use of publicly available information to gather insights and intelligence about a person, organization, or situation. By leveraging OSINT, investigators can uncover valuable information that would not be accessible through traditional investigative methods.
In this article, you will learn about what OSINT investigation is and its relevance to businesses and organizations. We will also give examples of the most common OSINT use cases, as well as techniques and tools you can use to aid you in your OSINT investigations.
Open-Source Intelligence: Definition
Open-source intelligence or OSINT is a research methodology that deals with freely available information — any source you can access without needing approval or clearance.
Thus, an OSINT investigation gathers and analyzes publicly available information for investigative purposes. It includes online research, social media analysis, and data mining from public records and databases.
Data sources include everything you can find online, from blogs and online forums to public government records and research papers. Even a simple Google search falls under this intelligence collection discipline. OSINT may also include traditional sources like books, journals, newspapers, television, and radio broadcasts.
Various professionals across all industries practice OSINT investigation techniques. These include:
- fraud investigators
- cybersecurity operations analysts
- law enforcement agencies
- military operations
- human resources
- threat hunters
- investigative journalists
- security professionals
What is the Importance of OSINT Investigations?
Whether you have an online-based business or a brick-and-mortar one, every new technology puts you at risk for threats and vulnerabilities.Regular OSINT investigations in your organization can help you with the following:
Detection of Data Breaches and Vulnerabilities
Any public information about your company — whether from social media posts or domains outside your network — can be used against you. Businesses are always at risk for data leaks, so corporate security is necessary.
OSINT investigations involve masterfully uncovering online intelligence and using tools and techniques to catch threats and vulnerabilities before they happen. Investigators monitor these public-facing assets and determine which sensitive information could set you up for a potential attack.
A negative brand reputation makes customers lose their trust, so preserving your brand integrity is a must. OSINT investigations protect sensitive customer information from leaks. You can also monitor social media mentions to ensure positive public opinion.
Conversion of Data Into Actionable Insights
No matter how much information you collate, it won’t be helpful without actionable intelligence. OSINT investigators use tools and experience to convert information into insights that would benefit your company. They piece all the relevant data together to provide recommendations for making informed decisions.
OSINT Investigation Examples and Use Cases
OSINT can be used for various purposes, such as due diligence, fraud investigations, and risk assessments. The following examples show use cases of OSINT across a wide span of industries.
Thanks to OSINT, security professionals can quickly identify potential threats, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses in a network. This allows them to respond promptly to incidents and repair damages in a compromised system. It is also helpful in brand protection, threat intelligence, network footprinting, dark web monitoring, and other investigations.
Social Media Investigations
With an estimated 4.89 billion social media users worldwide, it is unsurprising to find a vast amount of open-source content and information on various social media platforms.
Social media investigators use OSINT techniques to comb through a person’s social media footprint. This is helpful in cybercrime cases, where social media interactions and activities can identify potential accomplices and map out an entire cybercriminal network. It is also valuable in finding missing persons, as investigators could check their last known location and interactions.
Risk Management and Fraud Investigations
Risk management experts and fraud investigators can use OSINT to identify and manage intellectual property violations and detect and prevent the sale of counterfeit products online.
Additionally, OSINT can help mitigate organizational risks by identifying potential incidents of loss and aid in the recovery process. In financial fraud investigations, OSINT can verify the customer’s identity, analyze suspicious users, and even unmask affiliate fraudster networks.
People and Business Information Collection
Private investigators conduct OSINT investigations to collect data about businesses and persons of interest, such as criminals, witnesses, and VIPs. Some of this information includes:
- personal and contact information
- social media presence
- consumer records in digital marketplaces
- vehicle records
- court records
- business directories
- dark web data breaches
- web articles
Criminal investigations use various OSINT techniques like footprinting, reconnaissance, and digital forensics to conduct investigative work. OSINT can help collect evidence and find new leads in cases such as fraud, money laundering, human and arms trafficking, and even organized crime and operations.
Since corporate data is vulnerable in the digital age, OSINT can help detect data leaks early, saving businesses millions of dollars in damage. OSINT investigations can also carry out background checks for potential deals and collaborations and even for individual job candidates to preserve the company image.
Are OSINT Investigations Legal?
OSINT investigations are mostly legal. Since OSINT uses publicly available data, you can conduct your research without breaking privacy laws or needing a warrant.
However, privacy and documentation are a different matter. You need to make sure that the information you gather and store is handled in a compliant manner. After all, data protection laws exist, and they could restrict OSINT usage for intelligence gathering.
For instance, under United States law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) lets the government gather intel from foreign sources without a warrant if given voluntarily by US entities. While “incidental” collection of US persons is allowed, it cannot be used against them in any criminal case.
Certain countries also have laws against spying or collecting data for foreign countries without their permission, created to safeguard against foreign entities stealing resources or using them as a military base to oppress the citizens.
To ensure ethical OSINT investigations, you should:
- not access another user’s account
- not use a fake identity to engage or gather information
- not access private or password-protected material
The OSINT Investigator’s Job: What Does an OSINT Investigator Do?
OSINT investigators do not just collect data — they are also responsible for analyzing and making sense of the collated information. Here is a quick overview of the functions of an OSINT investigator:
Investigators usually start by gathering basic information, like names, emails, contact numbers, addresses, and usernames. This will help them build a case as they go down the rabbit hole.
Not all data gathered are relevant to the investigation, so the OSINT investigator should be able to make the right call on which information should be kept or weeded out. After all, false information might lead to wrong calls and assessments.
With the help of inductive reasoning, OSINT investigators build a theory based on their data. This can help them uncover elaborate schemes.
The OSINT investigator provides recommendations on what should be done next. They often involve another investigator in this stage to remove any bias.
OSINT Techniques for Data Collection
Since OSINT research involves basically everything on the internet, it is easy to get lost in the rabbit hole and get overwhelmed by the wealth of information out there. But you can use the following OSINT collection techniques for systematic research.
This method identifies accurate and real-time information by making contact with the target. An example is scanning a target website by looking up domain or certificate registrations to identify the website owner.
Investigators gather historical data from third-party sources using OSINT tools. While the data may not be up-to-date, this approach has a lower chance of detection and is best for covert OSINT investigations.
OSINT Investigation Best Practices
Though there is no single way to go about your OSINT investigations, keeping some best practices in mind can make things easier and organized on your end.
It’s best to start your investigation with a question. Doing so makes it easier to formulate a research strategy and identify the tools you need to get your answers.
When searching online, use search operators to help you filter results from search engines, such as Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo. It also helps counter algorithm bias. Do not forget to capture metadata to support digital identification and evidential presentation in web pages and social media extracts. Sources must also be verified and corroborated to ensure the validity of the information.
Finally, proper documentation is essential in OSINT investigations. Adding appropriate identifiers and time or date stamps for all reports makes it easy to scour through all the information relevant to the investigation. Your report should also contain a summary based on the collected and analyzed evidence.
Top OSINT Tools and Software
Combing through the entirety of the internet’s information can be tedious and time-consuming, not to mention impossible. That is why OSINT practitioners have developed various OSINT tools, software, and resources to ensure that for every type of data you need, there is an OSINT tool you can use.
The OSINT Framework
The OSINT framework is an extensive repository of free and paid tools for OSINT investigations.
Divided into 32 categories, you can sort these resources based on the type of data you’re looking for, such as:
- social networks
- public records
- dark web
- digital currencies
A Java-based graphical link analysis tool, Maltego collates all data and plots them in easy-to-understand charts and graphs to simplify complex investigations.
It automates searches from common public information sources, so users can easily execute multiple queries. After gathering information, Maltego analyzes connections and relationships that might be useful for OSINT investigation and presents them visually.
Maltego has a free version with limited features. Paid plans start at €999 per year.
Tech-savvy investigators would find Recon-ng powerful, as it can automatically harvest information about IP addresses, websites, and subdomains.
Since it is a free open-source software, it has a lot of built-in functionalities such as interacting with databases, standardizing output, and making web requests. Developers can modify the functions they want to perform and build a module out of it.
Google Dorks is a method of extracting information from Google, the most popular search engine in the world. It uses different search operators to do an in-depth search. Most of these functions work in other search engines, too.
Some common search operators include:
- site: searches within the mentioned site
- inurl: searches the text within the URL
- intext: searches the text within the article
- filetype: displays specific file types
- cache: searches on old indexed content
You can investigate via images using TinEye, a reversed image search engine that lets you submit a picture and harvest information about it, such as how it was used and where it was taken.
TinEye searches various databases to match the photo. It also uses picture matching, signature matching, and watermark identification to get further information about the image.
Open-source intelligence or OSINT investigations help businesses and organizations detect data breaches and vulnerabilities, protect their brand, and convert data into actionable insights. It has proven to be a valuable tool in combating cyber threats and improving business operations.
If you’re interested in conducting OSINT investigations for your company, corma is here to help. Contact us today, and let us discuss the perfect solution for you.