What is OSINT?
Open-source intelligence is an important resource for many companies and businesses across different sectors. OSINT may be used for various reasons — from preventing cyberattacks to informing business decisions.
The information collected using OSINT tools is considered raw data until intelligence teams analyze it to uncover meaningful information. That’s when raw public data becomes intelligence that can inform decisions.
Open-source data is any information that is free and legal to access, such as social media accounts, news articles, public records, government reports, DNS records, and even data from the deep web. While the information OSINT tools gather is typically text based, companies may also collect data from videos, conferences, or webinars.
Working with OSINT tools typically involves using advanced analytical techniques (like natural language processing or machine learning) to extract valuable insights.
What is OSINT used for?
OSINT tools are commonly used for various ethical and legal purposes. Here’s a quick overview before we look at them in more detail.
- Security and threat intelligence. Cybersecurity experts use OSINT to identify potential security gaps and threats.
- Legal investigations. OSINT techniques are crucial in legal investigations.
- Academic research. Researchers may use OSINT to gather data, analyze trends, and study social media behaviors.
- Journalistic research. Similarly to academics, journalists or investigative reporters may use OSINT tools to gather information for news articles or investigative pieces.
- Reputation management. Companies may use OSINT techniques to manage and monitor their online reputation. For example, businesses may hire experts to track company mentions and online reviews.
While OSINT is a valuable tool organizations use for legitimate purposes, cybercriminals also gather open-source intelligence. A hacker planning an attack on an individual or a business may collect public information about their target beforehand. They may spend weeks collecting data from search engines and social media networks to build a victim profile and plan their attack.
Why is OSINT important?
Open-source intelligence is an important topic for several reasons. On an individual level, learning about OSINT helps users understand how information about them may be accessed and used by various organizations (and, potentially, cybercriminals).
We often don’t realize how much information is available about us online and how easy it is for anyone to access it. Our digital footprint — traceable information about our online activity — includes browsing data stored in cookies, posts on social media, and account details. Knowing about open-source intelligence can help us become more mindful of what information we share and store online.
From a cybersecurity perspective, OSINT can provide companies with real-time information about potential security risks and help create threat prevention plans. It’s an essential tool for keeping corporate networks and systems secure.
Who uses OSINT?
Open-source intelligence can be used in many different ways by various public and private sector organizations. Let’s look at some of the key ones.
Government agencies may use OSINT intelligence to understand public views and predict political trends. By collecting and analyzing large volumes of publicly available data (e.g., sports or political event reports), governments can better understand how the public feels about a particular topic and use that information to inform their policies.
Governments often use open-source intelligence to monitor foreign intelligence activities, respond to crises (e.g., during natural disasters), and control immigration (e.g., tracking the movement of individuals).
Law enforcement agencies may use open-source intelligence to gather information when conducting an investigation. By collecting relevant information about individuals, organizations, or events, agents can identify leads and get closer to solving a crime.
Law enforcement officials may also gather intelligence for national security to protect citizens and businesses from physical and virtual attacks. For example, they may use social media networks to monitor users’ online behavior and even stop people from committing a crime.
Tools like advanced search operators allow law enforcement officials to scan social networking sites for specific words (like “attack” or “shoot). Using these tools, agents can identify and stop potential criminals before they can harm anyone.
Digital security professionals (e.g., security engineers, consultants, or ethical hackers) often use open-source data to measure security threats and respond to incidents. Collecting open-source data helps cybersecurity experts uncover how a cyberattack may have occurred and prevent it from happening again. We’ll cover this in more detail below.
Businesses hire intelligence teams (typically analysts, researchers, and field experts) to help them make informed, data-based decisions.
These teams may use OSINT tools to collect actionable intelligence from various open sources, particularly news articles, forums, and public records. Depending on what the business wants to uncover and understand, it may focus on collecting data about individuals, groups, or other organizations (e.g., competitors).
Journalists and reporters
Journalists and reporters may use OSINT to support their research, fact-checking, and investigations. Open-source data from official statements, public records, government databases, and legal documents help them detect inconsistencies and ensure reporting accuracy.
Reporters may also use open-source intelligence to trace leads and uncover hidden information. While in the past, investigative journalists primarily relied on human intelligence — contacting sources on the phone or in person — they can now access vast amounts of public information without leaving their desks.
Human intelligence is still an integral part of investigative reporting, but public data helps journalists connect the dots in previously impossible ways.
Unfortunately, OSINT isn’t only used for legitimate purposes. Hackers may apply various OSINT techniques to gather personal information about their victims and use it to execute cyberattacks.
For example, a hacker may plan to launch an attack on a specific organization. Before they carry out the attack, they may use publicly available information to identify vulnerabilities in the system (e.g., open ports). By looking up the company’s network or web application information, they may be able to detect this vulnerability and use it to gain access to the system.
A cybercriminal may also use OSINT to uncover individual IP addresses that websites or online accounts have logged. Knowing a user’s IP address can give hackers a starting point to get more sensitive information about the victim (e.g., geographic location).
Hackers could also use IP addresses to trick service providers into revealing sensitive data about their users (known as social engineering attacks).
The role of OSINT in cybersecurity
Open-source intelligence plays a crucial role in cybersecurity. By collecting data from various public sources, cybersecurity teams can help businesses protect their employees, data, and customers in many ways. Let’s take a closer look at how OSINT is used in cybersecurity.
Measuring security risks
By leveraging open-source data, security teams can keep track of the ever-changing threat landscape. They can identify emerging threats, vulnerabilities, and attack methods to help organizations prepare and protect their systems.
One example of how OSINT helps digital security teams identify threats is penetration testing or ethical hacking. In an ethical hacking attack, penetration testers (also known as white-hat hackers) simulate a real-world cyberattack to identify weaknesses in the system. The “attacker” tries to find ways into the system, then produces a report on all the weaknesses they found (known as an attack surface).
How does OSINT support ethical hacking? Before launching the attack, white-hat hackers collect extensive open-source information about the target organization. The collected data informs them about the ways they could attack and helps them create a comprehensive plan.
Open-source intelligence is also an essential resource for incident response. If a malicious party attacks a business or organization, OSINT techniques can help the relevant teams respond quickly to the incident.
For example, security engineers may search public sources for relevant information about the threat actor. Research papers, news articles, and vendor reports are some of the sources companies may review to understand the nature and scope of the attack.
Understanding threat actors
OSINT also helps cybersecurity professionals understand the motivations behind the attack (known as threat intelligence).
Threat intelligence is the act of collecting and analyzing data to understand a malicious actor’s motives, behaviors, and targets. Security teams that focus on threat intelligence combine open-source data with closed data sources (e.g., data from the dark web) to understand why the attack happened.
Best practices for utilizing OSINT in cybersecurity
Companies using OSINT tools and technologies for cybersecurity should follow certain best practices. Doing so will ensure the data is collected ethically and help organizations achieve their OSINT research goals. Let’s look at some of the best practices to follow.
Follow legal and ethical guidelines
Collecting open-source data comes with several legal and ethical considerations. Cybersecurity teams need to respect data privacy regulations (such as the GDPR), terms of service, and applicable laws when accessing and using open-source information.
Keep personal data confidential
Those using OSINT tools should collect, handle, and store data securely to protect sensitive information. Anonymization is particularly important — companies should anonymize personal data to protect people’s identities.
Companies should also consider the potential impact of data leaks and unintended disclosure of information when sharing OSINT findings across the business.
It’s important for anyone using OSINT to verify their sources before using the gathered data to inform decisions. One way to do so is by cross-referencing information from multiple sources to check for inconsistencies.
Additionally, sources should be fact-checked against primary and authoritative outlets. A lot of information we see online is recycled, so it’s important to go to the original source to ensure it has been cited correctly.
Finally, teams using OSINT should consider the biases and objectivity of various sources. Some may have a specific agenda that could influence the information these sources provide.
By balancing information from diverse sources, cybersecurity teams can gain more objective insights.