What is an OSINT investigation?
By Blackdot Solutions
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From AML compliance to AFC procedures, open source intelligence (OSINT sources) has become an increasingly popular method of investigation in various contexts.
OSINT is the targeted assessment of publicly available data to gain insights, drive decision-making, and mitigate risks.
By studying, cross-referencing, and analysing this information, connections and insights can be obtained about entities that would have otherwise been impossible. The potential for greater insight is facilitated by the sheer volume of open data sources, however this scale is also the largest obstacle to conducting effective OSINT investigations: professionals do not have the time to sift through such huge data sets and make proper sense of them.
The difference between OSINT and OSD
OSINT and open source data (OSD) are often used interchangeably, but they are fundamentally different concepts.
OSD in today’s context is publicly available information that is drawn primarily from the internet through mediums such as social media sites, online news sources, and sanctions lists.
OSINT is then the result of studying, analysing, and ultimately acting on the OSD. Anyone can access and gather OSD, but only those trained in investigation techniques can make meaningful decisions based on that information, which thus becomes OSINT.
Suggested reading: For more information on OSD, see our article here.
History of OSINT
OSINT traces its origins to the creation of the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service (FBMS) in 1941, an agency responsible for the monitoring of foreign broadcasts.1 Since then the practice has been expanded on by governments, organisations and businesses to counter terrorism, proliferation, espionage, and organised crime rings.
Today, tools and techniques developed for military and government applications are now moving into the private sector. Paired with an increased focus on intelligence-led data analysis, OSINT is disrupting investigatory best practices and creating far more robust outcomes in many scenarios:
- AML and AFC.
- Third-party due diligence.
- Fraud and corruption investigations.
- Brand protection and illicit trade.
- Insider threat identification.
The OSINT market crossed $5 billion in 2022,2 and is now expected to reach nearly $12bn by 2026.3 It is clear, therefore, that the method will stay relevant and increase in popularity for many years to come.
How can OSINT be used in practice?
As discussed, OSINT is already paving the way for the future of investigative practices in a wide range of industries. It enables organisations to map, track, and oversee risk factors, threat actors, and even consumer behaviours.
OSINT has powerful implications for AML and AFC investigations. By cross-checking OSD with corporate and financial records, connections can be made between entities that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
There are two critical sides to the adoption of OSINT in financial services:
- Doing what matters: Financial institutions have a responsibility to prevent financial crime. By taking an intelligence-led approach to AFC, it’s possible to win public trust and demonstrate relevance in an era of increased digitisation and disintermediation of financial services.
- Getting ahead of future compliance trends: Although OSINT requires the use of advanced tools and techniques, OSD in itself is available to everyone. As OSINT becomes a standard practice within the industry, regulators are likely to look poorly at financial institutions who do not use this readily available information.
With the high stakes of AFC investigations in financial institutions, access to a diverse range of data within an easy-to-access platform is crucial for ensuring that vital risks are identified and triaged appropriately.
As the financial and reputational cost of breaches in the corporate world grows, companies need to investigate every avenue of risk.
The best OSINT investigation tools are poised to bring a range of benefits to the corporate world:
- Due diligence: Creating a fast and thorough profile on new hires and external contractors is essential to mitigate risks of corruption, bribery, and lack of compliance.
- Brand protection: Identifying counterfeit networks and unauthorised sellers.
- Security: Mapping and collecting information on threats to inform mitigation measures.
- Insider threat identification: Tracing the social networks of malicious entities to uncover connections between employees and malicious actors.
It is thus clear that having at least one proficient OSINT investigator is a crucial asset for any business that wants to remain safe and remain compliant.
Government and law enforcement
OSINT has been a primary tool for government and law enforcement investigations for many years, but as OSD grows, OSINT practices will become even more integral to investigatory competence and success.
- Counter-terrorism: Understanding terrorist networks in real-time to identify potential targets and risks.
- Counter-proliferation: Identifying where organisations might be deliberately or unwittingly supplying goods to entities involved in the development and distribution of WMD.
- Serious and organised crime: Identifying and tracking down entities belonging to larger criminal networks.
OSINT can also provide invaluable benefits for risk consultancies working with governmental clients.
Suggested reading: To see how OSINT can be applied to the law enforcement sector, see here.
What is needed to make OSINT effective?
While OSINT stands to harness the power of data, poorly executed OSINT techniques can create as many problems as they solve.
Given the depth of OSD available, organisations risk drowning in information and failing to understand what they are studying. What is more, data analysis can create risks related to compliant data storage, use, and the possibility of exposing an investigation.
To overcome these OSINT challenges, investigators and analysts need a digital platform that has:
- Intelligent automation (IA): Instead of handing decision-making over to AI algorithms, IA instead presents investigators with relevant core pieces of information so that they are then best placed to make an informed decision. This is important to keep OSINT investigations targeted, ethical and effective.
- Reporting and visualisations: The ability to output data into clear graphs and visualisations is key to helping stakeholders and external regulators to understand the results of investigations.
- Secure browsing: Investigators must be able to remain anonymous as they study OSD, so that they can protect themselves and not accidentally tip off the entities that they are investigating.
These features are essential in conducting effective OSINT investigations; without them, investigation teams are left overwhelmed with data that they cannot process or make proper coherence of.
Empower OSINT with Videris
Companies need to demonstrate an understanding of modern risk landscapes, and just looking at online data is not enough.
Identifying the right data, collating it, and then shaping it into evidence is critical to achieving true OSINT. But to do this effectively, investigators from all backgrounds must use technology.
At Blackdot, we built Videris to elevate the way professional investigators use OSD. In addition to the key features discussed in this article, Videris has:
- Videris Search: Save time by searching across all of your sources at once and bringing results back into one platform. Intelligently prioritise results using context, then navigate through them easily.
- Risk Analysis: Determine risk at speed thanks to Videris’s automatic risk rating. Prioritise and triage cases appropriately so that the most important alerts are given to the right people.
- Corporate Network Mapping: Produce easily understandable visual representations of corporate structures in a few clicks, saving time and automatically highlighting key connections.
- Entity Extraction: Identify people, organisations, addresses and more amongst large volumes of search data with automatic entity extraction.
All of this and more are built into one, easily integrable platform that removes the friction of having to conduct OSINT investigations from multiple programs.
Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is the result once open source data has been collected, processed and analysed. It can then be used to drive decision-making.
– Open source data (OSD) is the raw and unfiltered publicly available information and data.
– Open source intelligence (OSINT) is extracting meaningful insights from OSD.
1. Financial services – AFC and AML teams using OSINT to fight financial crime and money laundering.
2. Corporate – using OSINT to protect your brand from financial or reputational cost, resolve identities of individuals involved in fraud, and carrying out enhanced due diligence to ensure you understand the risks with suppliers, employees or contractors.
3. Government and law enforcement – using Videris to understand networks of serious and organised crime, find and disrupt international border crime, and counter terrorism
4. Risk consultancies – analysts and investigators can conduct effective investigations for more clients in less time.
1. Cross-reference different data sources to ensure that investigators have the full context to drive decisions.
2. Faster and more effective analysis, and better presentation of data using visualisation capabilities.
3. Effective and secure team working across locations
4. Integrate internal data sources for a single view of internal and external data.
Bring professionalism and transparency to otherwise disparate sources and processes.