Open source intelligence (OSINT) is intelligence obtained from publicly available information. The data collected is freely available to the general public. It could be information acquired from Google, social media sites, and many other search engines. According to Micro Focus, “Open-source intelligence (OSNIT) is the insight gained from processing and analyzing public data sources such as broadcast TV and radio, social media, and websites. These sources provide data in text, video, image, and audio formats.”
The most common resource for collecting OSINT is the “surface web,” also known as the “visible web.” This version of the World Wide Web stands in direct contrast to the “dark web” or “invisible web, where contents of the Net are not indexed by conventional search engines. Open source search methods do not restrict themselves to major search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. According to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, 99 percent of websites, databases, and files remain indexed on the deep web, all of which are readily available to the public.
What is open source intelligence used for?
Despite being accessible to everyone, open source intelligence strategies are typically deployed by organizations that work with highly classified materials. Intelligence agencies, law enforcement teams, government researchers, new journalists, and cybersecurity professionals regularly benefit from open source intelligence information gathering.
While open source intelligence is an invaluable security tool, the sheer mass of freely available information poses a challenge to conducting an effective open source intelligence initiative. Several tools and techniques have been developed over time to help researchers and security professionals better focus their searches on a specified area.
The fundamental problem with open source intelligence is that, while the Web offers a swath of valuable knowledge, that information is available to the very same threat actors they’re deterring. Accordingly, a meaningful open source intelligence campaign must acknowledge counter-intelligence procedures and, similarly, that threat actors have access to the same knowledge. They may even be disseminating false information over publicly visible sources.
Conducting any cybersecurity and geopolitical intelligence threat assessment always commands that a sound information gathering strategy remains in place. Searching for anything of interest, anywhere across the surface of the Net, always amounts to ineffective use of time. Because open source intelligence is so widely misunderstood, it is subject to sweeping misuse. It is therefore imperative to recognize its three core functions.
Open source intelligence gathering always incorporates the following three features:
- Data from attained publicly available information
- Expedient analysis of the information, disseminated to the appropriate audience
- Fulfillment of a specific intelligence requirement
If any specialized tool, tactics, or resources are deployed to gather intelligence, the method is no longer “open source.” It is, likewise, critical to remember that open source searches scarcely restrict themselves to the visible web and its major web search engines. The deep web is still considered open source because it is accessible by the general public.
How is OSINT used for cybersecurity?
In cybersecurity, open source intelligence benefits the following tasks:
- Ethical hacking
- Penetration testing
- Identifying external threats
While open source intelligence gathering strategies dominate the cybersecurity field, it remains an invaluable tool for all security disciplines. The success of any open source intelligence initiative relies upon the presence of a clear objective that produces the desired information, seamlessly and without haste.