OSINT and Technology for Greater Border Security

By Charli Foreman

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Contents

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    The Importance of Border Security

    International borders are crucial in the fight against organised crime. Large criminal networks rely on smuggling people and wares across borders in order to make profits from crimes including:

    • Human smuggling: the transportation or illegal entry of people across international borders.
    • Human trafficking: harbouring people against their will and exploiting them for profit, sometimes involving transporting people internationally.
    • Wildlife trafficking: the transport and sale of illegal animal products, including live animals.
    • Drugs and weapons trafficking: the transport and sale of illegal drugs and weapons.

    Although the list above is far from exhaustive, it demonstrates just how many types of serious and organised crime intersect at international borders – meaning that border crime is a vital issue for national security.

    However, international borders also facilitate legitimate travel and trade on a large scale, supporting global economies. For example, the UK ports industry handles almost 500 million tonnes of freight and over 60 million passenger journeys each year.1 This means that any border security measures must allow for efficient legitimate operations whilst effectively countering illegal and illegitimate travel.

    Facilitating Border Security with OSINT

    It’s clear that border security is a complex issue, involving the convergence of multiple types of organised crime alongside high volumes of legitimate business. Any effective response must be likewise multifaceted to handle this complexity.

    In this article, we’ll discuss why Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) has an important role to play in future of border security. Read on to discover specific cases where OSINT can be deployed for greater border security and understand why technology will be key in facilitating effective use of OSINT.

    Suggested reading: Learn more about how to practice OSINT effectively by reading our OSINT Handbook for Law Enforcement.

    OSINT is the use of publicly available data (also known as open source data) to draw actionable insights. Sources that might be used in an OSINT investigation include publicly available social media and forums, PEPs and sanctions watchlists and live internet data from the deep, dark and surface web. We’re likely to see border security OSINT usage rise as the volumes of publicly available data continue to grow.

    Vetting and Insider Threat

    Many criminals rely on corrupt insiders to cross borders undetected. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, this issue has only become more urgent. After normal travel recommenced following disruptions due to the pandemic, there was a need to hire more border staff at relatively short notice. This gave organised crime gangs increased opportunity to place corrupt individuals within border security positions.2 Despite this, vetting procedures for border security staff haven’t necessarily tightened accordingly: a recent report noted concerns around the UK’s handling of the insider threat issue.3

    Therefore, an important proactive measure in strengthening border security is ensuring adequate vetting procedures, both for new hires and existing staff, to reduce the risk of insider threat. Whilst checking formal datasets – such as criminal records – is an important part of this process, it’s not enough to ensure security on its own. Criminals will do what they can to conceal their connections to insiders, meaning that vetting procedures must go beyond the surface level.

    How OSINT can help

    OSINT provides additional context when investigating networks and connections, making it ideal for a vetting use case. Using data from less official sources such as the live internet, investigators can gain a view of a person’s online connections. When this information is combined with internal data and official datasets, it gives a fuller view of a person’s network and likelihood of involvement in crime.

    However, it can be hard to uncover hidden connections effectively with OSINT if the right technologies aren’t in place. Investigators need to search through large volumes of unstructured data in order to find relevant information for analysis, but doing this manually risks important information being missed and eats up valuable time. The right technology supports investigators by allowing them to search across all the relevant sources in one place, getting them to the information they need faster. Plus, technology is key for visualising organised crime networks and their connections effectively.

    Suggested reading: It’s not just border security OSINT investigators who might use this technique for vetting – it’s useful for police too. Read our article, What is the Future of OSINT in Police Investigations?, to learn more.

    Reactive Investigations

    Proactive measures are important for reducing the number of threats to border security. However, as crossing international borders is such an integral part of many criminal operations, it’s crucial to have effective measures in place for when an incident does occur.

    By combining intelligence gained from arrests and seizures of illicit goods with OSINT, border security investigators can begin to map out and unravel the wider criminal networks behind smuggling and trafficking. Any initial information, such as a name or phone number, can be used as valuable seed intelligence to gain a better understanding of criminal networks and how they operate. Good OSINT technologies allow investigators to pinpoint where a specific name, phone number or email address appears on the web so that they don’t miss a potential lead.

    In the case of international postage or shipments, where a seizure may be made but no obvious criminal will be present, reactive investigations can also be useful, as seed intelligence can come in the form of the name or address on the parcel and transit history. A good OSINT solution should allow users to search sources such as corporate records, as illicit goods sent to a business address could point to a front company.

    Suggested reading: Learn more about how wildlife crime networks operate and how they are being countered – both reactively and proactively – in our webinar with United for Wildlife.

    Proactive Monitoring

    OSINT is also useful for monitoring and understanding criminal trends and typologies. For example, many criminals operate more openly on the dark web, meaning it can provide opportunities to gain more direct insights into their activity. However, the dark web is notoriously difficult and risky to access. Any investigator looking to use dark web data should seriously consider finding technology that handles the access issue for them to minimise the risk of introducing serious security threats into their organisation.

    Additionally, border security OSINT investigators should draw together information from previous incidents of border crime. This doesn’t just mean understanding the typologies of smuggling and trafficking on a physical level. By combining information from reactive, OSINT-led investigations, investigators can cross-analyse cases to see if any names, addresses or contact details appear multiple times. For example, OSINT might have uncovered that a criminal caught at a border had connections to an individual who, in isolation, seemed unremarkable. However, if connections to this individual appeared in investigations of multiple separate incidents, it indicates that they might be a key part of a larger criminal network.

    For handling such large volumes of data, good technology is absolutely vital. When manually searching for potential connections across multiple separate investigations, the risk of human error is high and it’s easy for a commonality to be missed. By automating this cross-matching with effective technology, organisations can rest assured that nothing is missed.

    What Does the Future of Border Security OSINT Look Like?

    OSINT is emerging as an increasingly crucial resource for ensuring border security. But what further developments might we see in border security OSINT usage in the future? And how can investigators make sure they’re getting the most out of OSINT by picking the technology that’s right for them?

    Emerging Approaches

    There has been some discussion about whether a proactive screening model could be used for increased border security. Such a model would run checks using OSINT on those attempting to cross borders, giving them a risk level which would then inform the further security checks they should be subject to. Not only would many checks have to take place in a short amount of time, but each check would have to search across large volumes of data, meaning modern, automated technology would be absolutely vital.

    Whether or not such approaches are implemented or even trialled remains to be seen. Although the checks would only use publicly available information, there are still questions surrounding the ethical implications of this approach that must be resolved.4

    How to Choose the Right Technology for Border Security OSINT

    Regardless of potential future approaches, there are important applications of OSINT within border security that should be implemented now. However, due to the large volumes of open source data available and the time sensitivity of certain investigations – vetting in particular must be able to produce effective results in short timeframes – it’s essential that border security OSINT investigators have access to the right technology.

    The right technology might look different depending on the specific use case and team, but there are some key features and considerations to look out for. These include:

    • All-in-one capabilities: Don’t waste time switching between platforms – look for a technology that includes search and visualisation alongside access to all the key sources you need.
    • Integration with internal data: Internal data is often the starting point of border security OSINT investigations, and any tool you pick should allow you to input seed intelligence and pre-existing context.
    • Scalability: It’s important to consider that the need for border security OSINT will only rise in coming years as volumes of passengers and shipments will grow. The solution you choose now should be able to accommodate growth in workforce to deal with these increasing volumes.  

    Learn more about how these features work in action with our OSINT solution, Videris. Reach out to book your free demo today.

    Conclusions

    It’s clear that OSINT is going to play an important role in the future of border security. By providing investigators with additional context, OSINT helps build a better understanding of wider criminal networks and the potential for insider risk. Its use complements the physical security measures already in place as it allows more intelligence to be gained from individual incidents. However, in order to get the most out of OSINT within a border security use case, investment in modern technology is needed.

    1. Organised Crime and the UK Border: Tackling Criminal Innovation at the Frontline | Royal United Services Institute (rusi.org)
    2. National Strategic Assessment (NSA) Campaign 2023 – Cross-Cutting Enablers – National Crime Agency
    3. Inspection report published: An inspection of Border Force insider threat (January – March 2023) – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
    4. Using Open, Public Data for Security Provision: Ethical Perspectives on Risk-Based Border Checks in the EU | European Journal for Security Research (springer.com)

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