For a lot of people, information security in an organization all happens under the hood. At the user-level there may be distinguishable common practices like looking for signs of phishing, securing accounts with strong passwords and 2 factor authentication. The rest of the stuff is best left to the IT Security people.
During a casual search, one might find themselves come across the term: OSINT, also known as Open-source Intelligence. The otherwise not-so-technical fellow wonders what the fancy term means, maybe they have visions of CIA operatives (or whatever the equivalent of that is where you are) conducting movie style operations with classified information kept under lock and key.
Admit it, you probably did. I certainly did.
Free for All, If One Knows Where to Look and How to Use It
Contrary to what you may see in the movies, open-source intelligence is actually freely available. Anyone can see it, read it, digest it… it is practically anything, really. Here’s the catch: one must know what to look for and most importantly know how to use it.
One great example of users who have the art of utilizing OSINT down to a science is the Chinese. In fact, they have even coined a term for this, qingbao. It was borne out of the need for China to develop new technology after splitting from the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
How was it done? Imagine researchers (mostly from Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China and the Beijing Document Service, to include many others) pouring over piles and piles of books, journals, patent papers, and just about anywhere you can get information about someone.
Fairly tedious stuff. But was it worth it?
It was for He Defang, Director of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China. He said that “China’s researchers reduced their costs by 40–50% and their time by 60–70%”
But this is all history, so you might be asking yourself: how does this apply in this age and more specifically, right now?
Intelligence in the Information Age
Let’s say you conduct a Google search on a particular subject of interest.
Without OSINT, you have to look at each and every result regardless of whether or not it’s actually relevant to your purpose and see if each one has what you are looking for. There are loads of potentially good nuggets, but which among them is actually needed?
With OSINT, you can sort out what’s just noise and what’s actually relevant. You already have direction and context of what you want to do and how to get there. Thus there’s more focus and you are more likely to get the needed result in a much shorter amount of time.
Therein lies another question: where do you get all these newfangled OSINT things? Here are various sources to find them.
- Media: newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and computer-based information.
- Web-based communities and user-generated content: social-networking sites, video sharing sites, wikis and blogs.
- Public data: government reports, official data such as budgets, demographics, hearings, legislative debates, press conferences, speeches, marine and aeronautical safety warnings, environmental impact statements and contract awards.
- Professional and academic: conferences, professional associations, academic papers, and subject matter experts.
In short, if it can be accessed by anyone, it’s open-source intelligence. Perhaps OSINT is composed of two parts: the information itself, and how the information is contextualized and analyzed.
The Deep Web’s Dark Secrets
Unbeknownst to prying eyes, there is more to the World Wide Web than what comes out of a Google search (or The Surface Web). In fact, there is a corner of the web hidden away unless you know how to get there. We call it The Deep Web.
According to The Guardian, you can only access 0.03% of the internet via search engines and the rest is what makes up the deep web. Imagine how vast that is.
What Lies Ahead
Oh, lots of things. This article scratches the surface of what lies out there. Of course as they say, it’s in how you use what you find but don’t say we didn’t warn you!
In the next part of this series, we will tackle the tools and techniques used by researchers to get the nuggets that are not so easily found and tie them all together.