Let’s talk about OSINT: what is it, what does it do, and why is it increasingly important?

The term OSINT stands for “Open Source Intelligence” and refers to the set of activities aimed at collecting and processing information accessible through public sources.

An increasingly important service for every type of organisation, especially because of the unstoppable production of digital data from internet users, this investigation tool is the ideal solution for a variety of different needs, such as market surveys, business IT security assessments, reputational assessments, and much more besides.

In this article, we will explore in greater detail what it is, what results it brings, and why OSINT has become a crucial intelligence activity across the board.

What is OSINT and what sources does it use?

Open Source Intelligence is an investigation activity involving the collection, processing and classification of information starting from the consultation of publicly accessible sources, i.e. all the data available to the public.

This is not a new process: OSINT has been around for decades and was once used as a complementary intelligence instrument by security agencies in a variety of nations. However, with the spread of the Internet, OSINT has occupied an increasingly central role in the field of investigations, involving an increasingly vast audience of users.

Today, the term OSINT refers to an investigation method involving the collection of information, data and news of considerable value when combined and associated with research, selection, evaluation and reporting activities.

The general aim of Open Source Intelligence is to respond to the specific information needs of the customer, whether an organisation, a business or a private individual.

Some examples? In just a few seconds, a military organisation can use cutting-edge instruments to query millions of public databases spread among the web, the deep web and the dark web in order to trace information about an outlaw; a commercial enterprise may require an OSINT investigation to obtain detailed information on the activities of a competitor, on a company they wish to acquire, on a natural person being assessed for recruitment purposes, etc.; a private individual may turn to a detective agency providing OSINT services to obtain more information on potential partners, missing family members, etc.

It is important to remember that OSINT always and only uses sources freely accessible to the public, and therefore must never violate privacy or copyright laws.

The most widely used OSINT sources are those available through traditional instruments, i.e. paper, and those available through digital channels:

  • forums, websites, blogs, social platforms, Whois records of registered domain names, digital files, metadata, IP addresses, podcasts, information about people shared on the network, and anything accessible through the internet.
  • Geographic and spatial information, both digital and on paper: maps, geolocation systems and street views.
  • General or specialised magazines, newspapers, books, television or radio broadcasts, or resources available via traditional media.
  • Photos and videos, including metadata.
  • Commercial product images.

Most data from open sources is not associated with a search engine positioning or indexing logics; therefore to be able to find it is necessary to browse the so-called “deep web”, that is, that portion of the internet that is not indexed by search engines: this “submerged web” is a set of information resources that the average user cannot access with ease (it is important not to confuse the deep web with the “infamous” dark web, which represents only a small portion of it).

As regards the methods of collecting data from open sources, one of the key steps of the OSINT method consists in identifying the IP addresses and any subdomains connected with the target of interest, as well as “sensitive” files and further information present on the web and freely accessible with the help of search engines specifically designed for the Internet of Things (i.e. for internet-connected objects and devices), such as Censys and Shodan.

What does Open Source Intelligence do?

The main aim of OSINT is to obtain information. More specifically, such investigations may be required to conduct analyses relating to customers, suppliers or competitors, in order to corroborate information obtained in the context of banking, insurance or unfair competition investigations, or to draw up particular Reputational Due Diligence reports or documents.

In detective agencies, Open Source Intelligence is applied to investigations of various types: e.g. background searches relating to customers and suppliers, theft of corporate materials, investigations into unfair competition, private investigations (e.g. related to marital infidelity or controlling minors), identification of cyber threats from external services and web applications (IT security), and specific reports to be drawn up at the request of law firms.

Information provided by means of OSINT includes: personal details of customers, suppliers and competitors and their contacts; user IDs and e-mail addresses; personal information of individuals; minutes, newsletters, landing pages, spreadsheets and internal notes; data relating to particular Internet domains or sub-domains; presence on social networks; corporate data of various types; geographic locations, etc.

It is important to understand that the choice of information is always subject to the specific goals of the investigation, which is in any case always conducted in accordance with the so-called “OSINT cycle”, consisting of four sequential steps:

  1. The Discovery phase: searching, identifying and collecting data of interest to the investigation.
  2. The Discrimination (selection) phase: sorting information into what is truly relevant to the purpose of the investigation and what is not.
  3. The Distillation phase: analysing the data and defining the various connections between the information collected.
  4. The Dissemination (final) phase: producing a document summarising the results of the investigation for the customer.

The OSINT cycle does not only concern new investigations, but also any integrations or updates to existing ones.

Gruppo Investigativo Ponzi SpA: your competent, reliable partner for OSINT operations

Gruppo Investigativo Ponzi SpA applies the OSINT method to various fields of investigation, in Italy and abroad. Our professionals, located in our various Italian and international offices, make use of cutting-edge tools and procedures for the identification of data and information of interest on a variety of channels, both digital and traditional.

Their long-standing experience and specialist skills in the interpretation of the data collected allow them to identify, extract, assess and catalogue any information relevant to the purpose of the investigation and to the aims of the customer, producing detailed, exhaustive reports and forensic evidence that can be used in court. Contact a Gruppo Investigativo Ponzi SpA specialist for more information or a special consultation.

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