How Covid-19 will impact the use of OSINT
By Charles Brown
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Covid-19 has rapidly accelerated the growth and consumption of data as millions turn to the internet to keep in touch with their loved ones and colleagues. For those who rely on OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) to conduct investigations, this expansion of available information presents immense benefits. But there’s also a darker side to it: fake news and misinformation.
To stay connected, people living life under lockdown have turned to online services and entertainment. This surge in demand for data has led to claims that weekday internet usage has increased as much as 60%. Annual expected growth in demand for data has happened within weeks.
There are some positive side effects to this rampant creation and consumption of data. Professionals are analysing a range of data sources to better understand and respond to the viral pandemic. Governments in many countries are using mobile phone usage and location data to analyse population movement patterns. This helps them to track how the virus is spread throughout the population.
More leads for investigators?
The increase in data also means that there is more information available to investigations and intelligence professionals that rely on OSINT. Social media platforms have seen huge surges in usage, with Facebook reporting a 50% increase in messaging in countries hardest-hit by the virus. Similarly, Instagram has seen a 76% increase in likes on ads since the start of March.
Individuals that had previously shied away from social media are turning to these platforms to remain connected. Where they might previously have confined their opinions to conversations in the pub or at home, they may now be more likely to post on a forum or write a blog. This mass digital migration is likely to bring to light information about the assets, locations and connections of criminals who might normally have displayed heightened levels of social media security and hygiene. All of this data is a potential goldmine for OSINT professionals adept at leveraging publicly available information.
Fake news and misinformation
Unfortunately, malicious actors are also taking advantage of the current state of chaos and heightened anxiety to disseminate misinformation. Memes, WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and Tweets spreading falsehoods about the “true” origins of the viral pandemic, and offering miracle cures have become all too common. UK communications regulator (OFCOM) has reported that “46% of internet using adults in the UK saw false or misleading information about the virus in the first week of isolation”.
Profit sometimes plays a role in motivating schemes like miracle cures. However, this misinformation also frequently comes from state actors. A former senior intelligence official estimated that “approximately 80% of the fake news being produced is state sponsored, largely coming out of China, Russia and Iran and is designed to undermine faith in our political institutions, and generally add to a heightened state of panic and anxiety.”
The importance of OSINT
This surge in fake news and misinformation means that OSINT has become more important than ever. As social contact is now discouraged in many countries, OSINT is one of the few remaining avenues through which crimes can be investigated.
In turn, OSINT investigators have become even more valuable, as they typically possess the requisite skills, tools and mindset to tackle fake news.
Determining whether or not the information contained in a news article, Tweet or Facebook post is deliberate misinformation often requires a systematic and time-consuming approach. Specialist OSINT research methods are essential for this – for example tracing content and sources, establishing the credibility of authors. More essential skills found amongst OSINT experts are interrogating URL and domain ownership information, mapping the organisations and corporate interests that are supporting and funding websites, and undertaking specialist imagery analysis.
Where does OSINT fit in?
The growth of data due to COVID-19 is a double-edged blade when it comes to OSINT. On the one hand, it is enabling health professionals to better tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s also creating a richer information environment for OSINT investigators. On the other hand our digital connectivity helps malicious actors exploit our digital infrastructure. As a result, they’re better able to spread disinformation and commit fraud (more on this in our next post). Either way, OSINT professionals are well-placed to step up and contribute toward the fight back.
Suggested reading: To discover how OSINT is used in practice, read What is OSINT?