What Is Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)?

With the power of publicly available information, OSINT helps individuals, businesses and governments alike make more informed decisions.

Written by Ellen Glover
Published on Mar. 21, 2024
What Is Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)?
Image: Shutterstock

Open source intelligence (OSINT) is the analysis of data collected from publicly available sources, such as social media platforms, news articles, census records and regulatory filings.

Businesses, governments, law enforcement and individuals alike use OSINT tools to sift through the limitless haystack that is open source data and find the needles they’re looking for, whether that be a potential threat or information on a specific person. It does not require hacking or illegally accessing private information.

What Is Open Source Intelligence?

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is the collection and analysis of information from publicly available sources, typically with the goal of gaining a comprehensive understanding of a particular person, group or subject.

“There is so much damn information on the internet,” Matt Edmondson, an OSINT expert and principal instructor at the SANS Institute, told Built In. “OSINT is about getting good at searching it, finding it and utilizing it — turning it into actionable information.”

 

What Is Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)?

Open source intelligence involves gathering information from across the internet and piecing it all together to get a more comprehensive understanding of a specific subject.

While major search engines can be an important part of OSINT, other sources of publicly available information include:

  • Social media platforms: Sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and X offer real-time insights into public opinions, trends and events. They can also provide more insights into specific individuals, including their hobbies, life milestones, political views and contact information.
     
  • News sites: Websites of major news outlets and publications, as well as news aggregators like Google News, provide up-to-date information on current events, politics, business news and more.
     
  • Forums and message boards: Platforms like Reddit, Quora and 4chan can be used to learn more about specific topics, as well as the individuals who are interested in them.
     
  • Government websites: Official government websites at the local, state and national levels offer access to public records, policies and legislation.
     
  • Public archives: Sites like the Wayback Machine, National Archives and other repositories and library catalogs can include a wealth of valuable information, including historical documents, research papers, birth and death records and land registries.
     
  • Satellite imagery sites: Platforms like Google Maps and Sentinel Hub offer access to satellite imagery, aerial photography and geospatial data, which can be helpful in analyzing specific geographic locations, environmental changes and infrastructure developments.
     
  • The deep web: The majority of information on the internet exists in this space, which requires additional permissions to access it. On the deep web, you can find anything from health records to legal files — much of which is still considered open source because it is readily available to the public.

Analysts, journalists, businesses and governments can use open source information to conduct comprehensive OSINT investigations, whether it’s a company doing market research, a law enforcement agency identifying potential security threat or an individual researching a political candidate.

“Publicly available information can be used to answer almost any kind of challenge that you have,” McDaniel Wicker, the senior VP of strategy at data intelligence company Babel Street, told Built In. “The limits of OSINT are really the limits of your imagination.”

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How Is OSINT Being Used?

Open source intelligence is a versatile process, and can be applied across a variety of use industries. Here are some of the more common ways OSINT is used today:
 

Threat Detection and Intelligence Gathering 

Law enforcement agencies use OSINT to gather information about potential security threats, such as terrorist plots or cyber attacks. They also use it to gather intelligence on foreign governments, organizations or individuals. 

By continuously monitoring social media platforms, news outlets, message boards and satellite imagery, the government can maintain a fairly comprehensive view of the online activities of relevant individuals and organizations, as well as broad geopolitical dynamics — at times making OSINT even more helpful than classified information, according to Edmondson, who spent decades performing open source intelligence as a federal agent with Homeland Security.

“People think the government has a ton of information,” he said. “But the internet is, by a mile  — even over classified information and everything else — the greatest location for information.”

 

Market Research and Brand Monitoring 

Companies use OSINT to gather information on consumer behaviors, industry trends and even the activities of their competitors, all of which can be used to make more informed business decisions. They also can use social media platforms and other online sources to understand how consumers and customers perceive their brands, and flag any counterfeit goods in circulation.  

 

Penetration Testing and Ethical Hacking

Cybersecurity teams often use open source intelligence to identify potential security threats and vulnerabilities in their software, helping them to assess the risks, monitor emerging threats and take proactive measures to protect their assets and data. 

Specifically, ethical hackers can track social media pages, online forums and public databases to better understand an organization’s digital footprint, which aids in identifying potential weak spots in its security posture. OSINT helps ethical hackers gather specific information on an organization’s tech stack, software, employees and more, allowing them to better recommend effective security measures that can mitigate security risks.

 

Investigative Journalism

OSINT can help journalists uncover hidden information on a range of topics. They can look at financial disclosure reports to identify potential conflicts of interest among politicians, for example, or SEC filings to stay up to date on the activities of a specific company. They can also use social media to track down sources and get real-time updates on ongoing events.

 

Disaster Response

OSINT can assist emergency responders and humanitarian organizations in better understanding the impact of natural disasters and facilitate timely relief. By gathering real-time information on social media, news outlets and other online sources, they can identify the areas where help is needed most and allocate resources effectively. Plus, satellite imagery can be used to map out disaster-affected regions and assess any infrastructure, all of which can help in the planning of rescue and relief operations.

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Advantages of OSINT

Open source intelligence offers several advantages over other forms of intelligence collection.
 

Cost-Effective

OSINT is usually cheaper than other forms of intelligence gathering. It relies on publicly available sources that are often free to access, and does not require a significant amount of investment in specialized equipment or personnel, as is the case with other methods.

“Traditional intelligence methods are expensive,” Wicker said. With OSINT, “you can access information that is publicly available with relatively inexpensive tools to answer most questions and drive most decision making.”

 

Easy to Share

OSINT is a transparent process, it doesn’t entail covert operations or the handling of confidential information. This means users can easily collaborate with other parties and share the insights they gather more freely — an especially useful perk in government-related applications.

“If you have classified information, that’s very, very difficult to share with other countries,” Edmondson said. “Whereas it’s very, very easy to share OSINT.”

 

Timely

Because OSINT relies on publicly available information, it can be gathered quickly and in real-time, allowing users to stay up-to-date on current events, emerging trends and other evolving situations as they unfold. Meanwhile, other forms of intelligence may take days or even weeks to gather and verify, and by that time the information may be outdated and useless.

 

Improves Data Awareness

OSINT can provide both individuals and companies with a better understanding of the public data that exists about themselves, whether that be outdated social media activity or contact information. When analyzed and utilized correctly, this information could pose serious cybersecurity risks. 

So, by understanding their online presence, people and organizations can beef up their security measures and mitigate potential vulnerabilities, Edmondson said. “The more you learn about finding information on people,” he added, “the better you get at cleaning up your own information.”

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Challenges of OSINT

Although it offers valuable insights, open source intelligence is not without its challenges.
 

The Information Is Not Always Trustworthy

The knowledge obtained through OSINT is not always trustworthy, as it relies on publicly available data sources that may contain inaccuracies, falsehoods and incomplete information. Wicker explained that it's important to have policies in place that dictate how OSINT is conducted, and how information is validated and fact-checked.

 

It Can Cause Information Overload

The sheer quantity of data available in OSINT sources can lead to information overload, making it difficult for users to sift through and identify important insights amidst all the noise. 

“Data doesn’t really mean anything unless it has a story. And those stories aren’t necessarily obvious,” Chris Willis, chief design officer at data visualization company Domo, told Built In. “The plethora of data alone makes it easy to get overwhelmed.”

 

Potential for Confirmation Bias 

It can be easy to fall into a “confirmation bias trap” while conducting OSINT investigations, according to Willis. Users may unintentionally favor information that agrees with their preexisting beliefs or agenda, and overlook or discount any contradictory evidence. In OSINT, where data is often vast and diverse, confirmation bias will likely skew interpretations, which could hinder objective analysis and decision-making. 

 

Privacy Concerns

OSINT activities like social media monitoring and web scraping could potentially scoop up people’s personal data without their consent or control, posing significant privacy concerns. This data may include sensitive information about an individual’s identity, behaviors and activities, which could be misused if not handled properly.

That is why it is essential for OSINT practitioners to uphold their own ethical standards and adhere to all of the data privacy laws within their jurisdictions.

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Why Is OSINT Important?

Open source intelligence is an important tool for operating in today’s data-saturated world. More than 328 million terabytes of data are created every day on the internet, according to the latest estimates. But none of it means anything if we can’t understand it.

OSINT gives us a way to understand it, gathering up all that data and distilling it into actionable intelligence. In an era of rapid globalization, instant communication and emerging threats ranging from natural disasters to terrorism, OSINT plays a crucial role in enhancing preparedness, enabling more informed decision-making and fostering resilience in the face of uncertainty.

“If you don’t have an understanding of what OSINT is, then you’re going to fail to understand today’s world,”  Wicker said. “You’re not going to understand the opportunities, the risks, the dangers. And, ultimately, that sets you up for failure.”

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, it is legal to use open source intelligence. This is because OSINT tools only rely on information available through public sources.

Companies can use OSINT to monitor their competitors’ activities, track product launches and analyze customer feedback by gathering information from sources like industry reports, news articles, social media pages and online forums. All of this enables companies to make more informed decisions about their product development initiatives and marketing strategies, which can help them stay ahead of the competition.

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