What is the Future of OSINT in Police Investigations?

By Blackdot Solutions

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    Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) has long been recognised as an important source of insight into criminal activity and, as such, a vital resource for police officers. 

    However, the advent of the internet has brought about major changes in what the discipline looks like. With much more publicly available data easily accessible for investigators and a variety of assistive technologies on the market, the way the police use OSINT has developed considerably and will continue to do so in coming years.

    In this article, we’ll explore what the future of OSINT looks like in police investigations. From an increasing variety of use cases, to predicting future trends and challenges, we’ll help you understand what’s to come and how you can continue to use OSINT to effectively counter criminal activity.

    How is OSINT changing?

    OSINT is defined as the collection and analysis of Open Source Data (OSD) to draw actionable intelligence. Law enforcement investigators have used this technique since long before the internet, drawing OSD from newspapers, radio broadcasts and books.1 OSINT has proven itself to be one of several crucial sources of intelligence for police investigators, and will continue to be used in criminal investigations in the future.

    What’s changed in recent years is that the amount of OSD readily available to investigators has drastically increased. The internet has been the main cause of this change – though not entirely comprised of open source information, it contains over 64 zetabytes of data.2 Alongside the traditional OSINT sources mentioned above, investigators now have access to many more sources of OSD, such as social media platforms and dark web forums.

    This growth of OSD has two main implications for law enforcement agencies. Firstly, it’s become even more crucial that police investigations include OSINT. Whilst it is over-simplifying the matter to claim that more publicly available data means there are more potential insights to be drawn, the work of organisations like Bellingcat demonstrates the profound impact that OSINT alone can have in the digital age. Moreover, because criminals often interact with each other online, police have the potential to gain more direct insight into criminals and their operations than ever before.

    However, the ever-increasing volumes of open source information also present a challenge for police investigators. It’s become much more difficult to conduct OSINT manually and investigations are often far more time-consuming. Although there is important information out there, it can be challenging to cut through the noise and generate actionable insights. 

    Looking to the future, the amount of OSD will continue to grow year on year. This means that police investigators must find ways to overcome these challenges in order to continue leading effective investigations. We’ll explore how they can do this below. 

    Suggested reading: Read our free eBook, the OSINT Handbook for Law Enforcement, to learn more about how police OSINT investigators can optimise their investigations.

    When should police investigators use OSINT?

    With a wider variety of OSD available to investigators, we can expect to see OSINT applied effectively to a large range of use cases in the future. Although it’s already being used to counter many different types of crime, there’s a real opportunity to expand how OSINT is being used within law enforcement. Furthermore, criminals are now operating online – which means that police need to ensure they’re using the internet to their advantage, too.

    For example, law enforcement have long used techniques such as social network analysis to understand who knows who and map out criminal networks. Going beyond internal sources and screening databases by using OSINT helps investigators gain more insight into these networks, and reveals connections that wouldn’t have been apparent otherwise. Applying OSINT in this way increases the scope of many different types of investigation, for example counter-terrorism and transnational organised crime

    Recently, many UK police forces have recognised the need for more robust vetting procedures.3 OSINT can help here, too. From understanding a potential hire’s connections, to checking adverse news, OSINT should be used alongside screening on official databases to strengthen internal vetting processes. If a candidate is only screened against official sources, but later conducts themselves improperly, there may have been pre-existing indicators that this might happen online. By using OSINT, law enforcement agencies can be more confident in their personnel.

    Overcoming challenges in police OSINT investigations

    So how can police OSINT investigators overcome the challenges that come with increased volumes of OSD in order to fight different types of crime more effectively?

    Ongoing training certainly has an important role to play, as it has in the past. However, implementing specialised OSINT tools is key if law enforcement want to continue using OSINT effectively within their investigations. There is simply too much OSD out there to conduct effective OSINT using manual techniques – investigators need the right tools to empower them to cut through the noise.

    Implementing new tools might be intimidating – and even seem like a waste of time – but it’s simply no longer feasible to conduct OSINT investigations manually. Without the right tools, investigators are likely to miss key pieces of information across the surface, deep and dark web. Furthermore, information on the internet exists in many different places – dark web data even requires a specific browser to access – and it can be very difficult to keep track of which of these you’ve already consulted and ensure a full audit trail of the investigation.

    A good modern investigative tool will reduce time-consuming and tedious manual tasks, whilst leaving the user in total control of the investigation. Instead of spending valuable time switching between platforms and searching through large volumes of data, police investigators who use a good OSINT platform will be able to access all the data sources they need in one place and get to the information they need faster. An investigator’s insight and analytical expertise can’t be replaced by technology, meaning that fully automated AI solutions aren’t advisable. However, there are many OSINT tools available today that use technology such as natural language processing and machine learning to enhance an investigator’s workflow, rather than searching to replace them.

    The role of OSINT tools in conducting accountable and ethical investigations

    Many modern OSINT tools will also aid investigators in addressing security and privacy concerns and ethical issues. In an investigation, it’s imperative that operations remain anonymous and untraced, as tipping off a subject of interest puts the entire investigation at risk. Usually, police investigators might have to implement security measures themselves, which can be time-consuming and leaves them open to human error. Good tools will remove this responsibility from the investigator, allowing them to access even notoriously risky sources like the dark web seamlessly.

    Investing in a solution that automates evidence capture will also ensure that no crucial intelligence gets lost. One challenge when working with live internet data is that it could be removed at any time, and a source found earlier may no longer be there the next time an investigator tries to access it. Automated evidence capture helps police OSINT investigators overcome this difficulty, which is crucial in criminal investigations. Not only do these investigations need to be fully auditable, but the consequences of losing key evidence that could lead to conviction are potentially dire, making evidence capture a must.

    Additionally, many solutions will help law enforcement officers practise more targeted data collection, which is inherently more ethical. Collecting large amounts of data that isn’t all relevant to an investigation is often considered to be bad practice, as it can breach individuals’ right to privacy. By practising more targeted data collection, police OSINT investigators can ensure they only collect relevant data which they have a legitimate interest in examining.

    Future police OSINT trends and innovations

    In coming years, we can expect to see new technologies develop which will help police OSINT practitioners overcome investigative challenges better than ever before. Recent trends suggest that we may see increased use of AI within law enforcement, but it’s important to remember that any AI processes used must be fully explainable. Additionally, we’re unlikely to see any forms of AI that can fully replace the valuable decisions that police OSINT investigators make any time soon.

    On the other hand, the increased availability of AI is likely to pose a further challenge to police OSINT investigators. AI ‘deep fakes’ mean that misinformation and disinformation are more prevalent and harder to spot than ever before, and add to the volumes of data that OSINT investigators are faced with. However, tools are already being developed to help identify AI-generated content, and the presence of this content can sometimes signal criminal activity. By using OSINT to trace the accounts and people behind the spread of ‘deep fakes’, police investigators may be able to catch criminals in the act.

    See the future of OSINT investigations with Videris

    With more criminals operating on the internet, it’s more important than ever before that law enforcement agencies make the most out of OSINT. However, it’s also becoming more difficult to do this due to the growing volumes of online and open source data available. Without the right technology, police OSINT investigators will see a significant decrease in the effectiveness of their operations.

    Luckily, modern OSINT solutions exist to help law enforcement ensure robust intelligence capabilities. One such solution is Videris, which allows police OSINT investigators to:

    • Search across all relevant data sources at once, including live internet information from the surface, deep and dark web as well as publicly available social media .
    • Cut through the noise and get to the most important information faster.
    • Visualise data in order to better understand the connections between individuals.
    • Benefit from automatic evidence capture, so that nothing is lost.
    • Run deeper investigations, gaining more insight into criminal activities.

    Discover how Videris can transform the future of your OSINT practices by booking a demo today.

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