How Financial Intelligence Units can Unlock the Power of OSINT

By Blackdot Solutions

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    In today’s world of ever-evolving and increasingly sophisticated financial crime, the role of financial intelligence units (FIUs) has never been more critical. These specialised agencies, responsible for detecting and combating crimes that threaten the integrity of the global financial system, stand at the forefront of the fight against money laundering, terrorist financing, and other illicit economic activities. To maintain the upper hand in this ongoing battle, they are increasingly turning to an invaluable information tool: open source intelligence (OSINT).

    In May 2023 the Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units, an international organisation that facilitates cooperation and intelligence sharing between national FIUs, ran a project to assess the extent to which FIUs use OSINT. The results conclusively show that FIUs are fully aware of the potential rewards of using OSINT, with 97% of respondents confirming they already do so. The report details both the use cases and benefits of incorporating open source information in the investigative work performed by FIUs, but also highlights some of the difficulties and challenges they face.

    Suggested Reading: When investigating financial crime, analysts must often consider whether a subject has any connections to sanctioned entities. Discover how OSINT supports sanctions investigations here.

    Why FIUs need OSINT

    There is a clear need for FIUs to be able to use every tool at their disposal to increase efficiency and effectiveness. The information contained in SARs is frequently patchy, and is often not sufficient to paint the full picture. This is especially true since the scope of entities required to report SARs has grown in recent years (for instance under the EU’s 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive) and many newly obligated firms lack expertise in writing good SARs. Moreover the explosive growth of the FinTech sector means a large number of new, smaller firms which lack significant transaction history or KYC information, and thus produce particularly scant SARs.  

    The National Crime Agency (NCA) is clear that when a SAR is submitted with missing or incomplete information, it affects the NCA’s ability to prioritise and process the report, and for the relevant law enforcement agency to make the right decisions. The ability to supplement financial data with other sources of information from a wide variety of sources such as corporate ownership, litigation history and adverse media, can make all the difference in making a successful case. 

    Suggested Reading: Learn more about how corporate records aid the fight against financial crime in this article.

    Where is OSINT being used in FIUs today?

    There are currently two main use cases for OSINT in FIUs:

    At the operational case level, FIUs use OSINT alongside granular transaction information received from financial institutions to paint a broader picture of their subjects and help develop cases. FIUs report using OSINT to profile subjects, identify existing adverse information, trace assets, map out networks between connected parties, and trigger new FIU cases.  

    FIUs also use OSINT at a strategic, proactive level, to highlight new money laundering or terrorist financing trends and typologies and to identify factors influencing the effectiveness of anti-money laundering/counter-terrorist financing (AML/CTF) regimes.  

    Case study: Liechtenstein’s FIU and the South American Gold Deal

    Liechtenstein has revealed how its FIU uncovered vital information when conducting OSINT research in relation to a large-scale South American case. The FIU identified an article that indicated a former foreign minister of a South American jurisdiction had purchased gold in Liechtenstein using funds held with their offshore company accounts in Liechtenstein. This triggered an analysis by the FIU into all domestic entities affected by this business deal (the bank involved, the precious metals dealer, and local trust or company service providers). The analysis revealed that the gold had been picked up by a third party that was already known to have ties with a large-scale ongoing international investigation. An analytical report was then prepared and sent to the Office of the Public Prosecutor.

    Suggested Reading: Discover how FIUs can get more out of OSINT with our free eBook, the OSINT Handbook.

    Are FIUs using OSINT to its true potential?

    To develop an effective OSINT strategy, FIUs need to take a considered, tech-driven approach. The amount of suspicious activity being reported is growing exponentially, meaning an increasing workload for FIUs. For instance in the UK, 901,255 SARs were filed in the financial year 2021-2022, a massive 21% increase on the year before. The number of analysts investigating these SARs is not increasing in line with the workload, meaning FIUs are having to do more with less. Fortunately dedicated technology can help them to do just that.

    Search engines are not adequate

    Currently, only 31% of FIUs report having access to an OSINT platform. This means most are relying on manual searches; 97% of responding FIUs state they use search engines such as Google. While these undoubtedly have their uses, they offer a limited ability to screen for subjects effectively. The Wolfsberg Group, an association which produces industry guidance on financial crime, recently published advice on this exact topic, describing search engines as “content browsing mechanisms” that produce inconsistent results even with the use of Boolean operators.  

    More sophisticated tools such as dedicated OSINT platforms can enable FIUs to research financial crime risk more effectively. Where search engines’ result prioritisation is commercially driven, these platforms help investigators search multiple sources simultaneously and review content based on relevance, rather than profit-making potential.

    Suggested Reading: Learn how to pick the OSINT platform that’s right for you with our anti-financial crime technology buyer’s guide.

    Information overload

    The Egmont Group survey details some common OSINT problems experienced by FIUs, which closely mirror those of their private sector counterparts. The most commonly cited challenge is “potential information overload”, highlighted by 31% of FIUs. The volume of information available through open sources is one of its strengths, but also an operational challenge without the right technology to help sift and refine the information analysts are required to look at. OSINT platforms will often allow investigators to filter through content faster and more intuitively than  manual searching methods allow.

    FIUs also cited difficulty verifying sources and establishing the reliability of information. This can be addressed by using OSINT platforms that assess the sources they draw from and rank sources for reliability.

    Suggested Reading: Our article ‘How Reliable is OSINT?’ provides a deep dive into this fascinating subject.

    Barriers to data access

    Other operational challenges which are easily overcome by the right technology relate to anonymity concerns and internal policies that prevent access to certain OSINT data sources. For example, the dark web can provide investigators with extensive insights into the networks behind wildlife and drug trafficking – but the need to access it through a secure browser such as Tor means that most organisations cannot make use of this data. Accessing information via a dedicated platform rather than directly from the original source website can mitigate these issues by providing a layer of security and anonymity between the investigator and potential malicious actors. Similarly, some FIUs find subscription costs for numerous proprietary databases challenging; this can be centralised and simplified through using one centralised OSINT platform. 

    Intuitive research, presentation and sourcing

    Another interesting feature highlighted by the survey is the fact that 74% of FIUs do not have dedicated OSINT teams. This means that whilst most FIUs are using open source information, the people doing so are not specialists. These analysts are combining OSINT with proprietary records and financial information, so there are already several data sources and platforms at play. Intuitive, easy-to-use tools will help investigators less experienced in OSINT to implement clear, transparent and repeatable investigations processes that include all relevant sources.

    Finally, there is a clear use case for an OSINT platform to simplify the provision of clearly presented findings, using visualisations where necessary, and ensuring a strong audit trail. This is vital when reflecting that the ultimate goal of FIUs’ work is to establish if a crime has been committed so that a legal case can be brought against the perpetrators.

    FIUs can unlock better OSINT with technology 

    The Egmont Group report identified OSINT as an “excellent resource for operational and strategic analysis and intelligence generation by FIUs”. The potential for OSINT to make a real difference to the outcome of FIUs’ operations is clear, but equally so is the need to ensure FIUs have access to the right tools to maximise this potential. 

    How Videris can help

    OSINT tools like Blackdot’s Videris help investigators improve the effectiveness of their OSINT operations by streamlining their research and investigation in a single interface.  With Videris, investigators can:

    • Search more precisely across multiple disparate data sources (e.g. search engines, news and social media, corporate records etc.) to quickly identify relevant information on their subject. 
    • Conduct more effective research with automated visualisations and contextual analysis tools.
    • Access all of the data they need securely and anonymously – including publicly available social media, blogs, forums and the dark web.

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