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5 Questions Mason Blog Dec22

The Five Questions You Must Answer to Take Full Advantage of OSINT

By Brittany Mason

Are you fully leveraging open-source intelligence (commonly referred to as OSINT), or publicly available information, in support of your organizational mission? OSINT refers to the growing space involving the collection and analysis of freely available information (data) from a wide range of online sources.

OSINT is rapidly becoming a vital component for professionals charged with executive protection, proactively identifying both external or insider threats, those focusing on identity and risk management, law enforcement officers and analysts working criminal investigations, and a wide range of others focused on additional use cases.

And when it comes to the professionals working hard to protect our national security and public safety interests, harnessing the power of OSINT is an absolute must. In the 2021 CSIS report “Maintaining the Intelligence Edge,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and a board of senior, highly respected former Intelligence officials, called for OSINT to be elevated “as a core ‘INT’”- on par with the other Intelligence disciplines.

Whether you’re merely considering the use of OSINT or you’ve taken steps to do so, but aren’t sure you’re using it to the fullest capabilities, consider these five questions to ensure you are leveraging the full power of this critical source of information.

1. Are you peeling back all of the digital layers or did you stop too soon? (There are more layers than you think!)

When you first get started with OSINT, it’s easy to think of traditional social media sites or whatever pops up with a quick web search as the main places to look for information. That is a great place to start, but it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring everything that is publicly available.

What about all the other areas and layers of publicly available information? There is a lot more to this data landscape than you might initially think.

Consider these examples:

  • It is estimated that there are more than 600 million blogs on the internet. In addition to this, internet users leave around 77 million blog comments per month. (Source: Blogging Wizard)
  • The online world consists of dramatically more non-English sources of data than you might guess. These non-English sources of data outnumber English sources by a wide margin.
    • “As of January 2020, English was the most popular language online, representing 25.9 percent of worldwide internet users.” (Source: Statista)
    • Yet despite English being the “most popular” language online, that still leaves close to 74% of online content that is non-English.
  • Some sources estimate that the websites indexed by Google only represent approximately 4% of the total information available on the Internet. (Source: The Tennessean)
  • The deep or dark web, as it’s known, is an extensive collection of sites not easily accessible by the average internet user. Collecting information and drawing potential insights from the multi-lingual data held in this relatively hidden online universe requires both special tools and knowledge.
  • The ability to search through public records – real estate information, court records, asset records, official documents, and more – serves as a vital source of valuable information. Yet this information is, by nature, scattered across a wide variety of sources. Manually pulling this information from a fractured landscape of locations can cost a great deal of time and money.

Searching traditional sites is an absolutely great place to start. But it is important to also make sure you widen your search across other available sources. Your search may also need to vary by geographic location, by different areas of the web (besides those web search hits), and by language, as well. This helps ensure you get the fullest picture possible to successfully support your mission.

Pro Tip: Make sure you cast a very wide net while taking the time to document all your sources and steps as you peel back the layers and dive further into your OSINT searches. It is key to be able to trace the original source of your information and document exactly how you got there.

2. Have you gained the fullest perspective possible?

When leveraged correctly, OSINT provides the ability to gauge multiple perspectives and voices. This creates a fuller picture of the topic and/or problem at hand.

When conducting research or working a case, focusing only on one voice, one area, or a single perspective will significantly hinder your results. As you take a step back to see just how powerful OSINT can be to help fulfill your mission, it is important to understand the benefits of multiple perspectives across the realm of publicly available information.

Here are a few short examples of this in action:

  • If you want to maintain situational awareness for an event across the globe, you should aim to tap into the hyper-local news from that specific geographic area, rather than rely fully on what mainstream or non-local media is reporting.
  • It is often highly important to be able to measure sentiment in the native language of a post or article. This offers an analyst or investigator a clearer view of how this specific event or topic is received and being discussed in the areas that are most impacted.
  • The accuracy and speed of your information collection matters. An AI-enabled cross-lingual, persistent search of thousands of global and regional PAI sources around the world may help you stay ahead of the information curve.

Pro Tip: It is important to remember that different platforms provide different perspectives. This is why it’s critical to ensure you broaden your search through multiple layers of OSINT to achieve the fullest possible picture.

3. Are you asking the right questions? – The OSINT building blocks.

One key question to ask when diving into the OSINT landscape is: “where should I look next?”

Maybe you ran a quick search and identified additional names, keywords, or areas of interest. That’s great! Should you stop there or keep going? And if you do keep going, where should you look next?

Sometimes that first step of identifying additional selectors and keywords is extremely helpful and all you need. Other times, it may be the first of many steps that you can take in your analysis to build an even clearer picture of the problem you are trying to solve or the question you hope to answer.

Pro Tip: Continuously question whether you are stopping an OSINT-based search too soon or if there are other sources you should be looking at next.

4. Are you using outdated tradecraft?

The data landscape continues to evolve. As OSINT practitioners, we need to be sure we do not get too comfortable, and that we continue to evolve and innovate as well. Searches that worked even just two or three years ago may not be the best practices today.

As the sheer volume (and types) of open-source data grow, you need to have a search tool that scales with it. This accounts for important concepts such as searching across a wide set of languages through a variety of different sources, and it ensures that we are checking all the current right places.

For example, as traditional social media platforms continued to suspend more terrorist and extremist affiliated accounts in 2015, several groups migrated to other platforms like Telegram*. What worked in 2014 when staying on top of a particular threat is quite different than how you would likely approach the problem today.

Additionally, in the early days of OSINT, manual searches were enough – and sometimes they still are. But now, as the amount of data has grown, and new sites or platforms have been created, it is almost impossible to answer complex, mission critical questions, through manual searches.

Making matters more complicated, tight budgets and limited staffing often creates a situation where investigators or analysts are forced to cover more ground in a shorter timespan with fewer resources than ever before. Faced with a constantly expanding and evolving digital data landscape, the odds are stacked against you if you’re hoping for timely, relevant results without modern, AI-powered OSINT tools built specifically in response to this immense challenge.

It is important to note, however, that every organization varies when it comes to policies and procedures related to open-source intelligence. Always be sure you’re adhering to the guidelines set forward by your specific organization.

Pro Tip: Do not get too comfortable and always evolve with the data landscape. Trends, people, and platforms change. Constantly sharpen your technique and overall digital awareness to conduct more effective searches. This will allow more time to conduct analysis and get to the answers that matter.

Bonus Pro Tip: Investing in the modern technology that an efficient, flexible, AI-powered OSINT platform provides enables organizations to complete mission-critical tasks by effectively multiplying staff capabilities by several orders of magnitude.

5. Did you stick to the basics or overcomplicate things?

When it comes to OSINT, it never hurts to stick to the basics when doing your searches. There are a great deal of fancy sounding terms and techniques out there. But sometimes all you need is a simple, quick, tactical search to get the answers you need.

Don’t overcomplicate it. Make sure you have a research question and know what you are looking for. Take it one step, one building block, at a time. It may become clear, in some cases, that you need to dive deeper to gain even more insight. But no matter how straightforward – or in-depth – your investigation needs to go, be sure you’re harnessing the power of OSINT to cast a wide net.

Pro Tip: The trick to running efficient searches is knowing when you have what you need or when you need to keep digging. There is no hard and fast rule with this, but if you start by using great technology to aid in your pursuits, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

Perhaps the biggest barrier for most analysts when it comes to harnessing the power of open-source information is a reliance on outdated search methodologies. Conducting keyword searches online using traditional search engines will only scratch the very top surface of available information. And even then, the actual information you’re looking for may be several layers deep in the returned results – a layer you might easily never see for a multitude of reasons.

Armed with a thorough knowledge of the data landscape and a powerful AI-driven OSINT tool, investigators can gather insights and critical information at lightning speed. And these insights can be the difference between mission success or substantial failure – a risk nobody wants to take.

Just getting started with OSINT or want to enhance your tradecraft and/or data access? Reach out to Babel Street today and let us help you get on the right track. Whether it is exploring our tools or leveraging our knowledge of industry best practices, we’d love to have a conversation with you.

*Source: