Although social media and messengers have revolutionized communication, the consequences have cut both ways. We’ve enjoyed unprecedented conveniences alongside more discomforting repercussions, as the same technologies have been turned to more nefarious purposes as well. But in an age of mass-digitization, criminal actors and organizations are leaving ever more data points behind their activities.
In this landscape, OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) tools are becoming indispensable for Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) and security services around the globe, as investigators are empowered to collect, visualize and analyze huge volumes of data. These tools not only address broader concerns about modern forms of crime, they also streamline workflows for intelligence teams, allowing ever more wrongdoers to be identified. Here’s how.
A New Necessity
Although we benefit daily from the internet, its murky underbelly can’t be ignored. According to Statista, in the US alone, the monetary cost of cybercrime tripled between 2017 and 2020, from $1.4 bln to $4.2 bln and is forecast to exceed $1 tln by 2025.
Ironically, the online migration of crime has led to an explosion of information becoming available on illicit activities. Today, law enforcement agencies can more readily find meaningful leads and evidence on servers than on the streets. In particular, open data – largely retrieved through social media platforms – has proved itself to be a remarkable resource in tracing criminal actors and networks.
However, such information is vast and complex, making accurate data extraction and analysis a daunting task. Meanwhile, criminals are developing ever more ingenious ways to scramble or hide their tracks. At a juncture where the huge potential of open-source intelligence is being checked by its challenges, OSINT technologies are becoming a game changer for LEAs and intelligence bureaus all over the world.
The Uses of OSINT in Law Enforcement
Open-source intelligence is a versatile player in the law enforcement sector, being used in a variety of areas including criminal investigations, cybercrime, organized crime, human and arms trafficking, fraud and money laundering among others. These applications all largely stem from open data’s huge capacity as a resource for effective reconnaissance.
As social networks and messengers pervade more of the interactive environment, criminal actors become increasingly blasé and ignorant to how all of their online activities are being deposited. When such data is retrieved, it can become vital for the progress of a case, either as a lead or as evidence. Establishing indirect links between individuals and events may be pivotal in identifying criminals.
As a recent case in point, OSINT technologies were central to the successful investigation of the U.S. capitol riot in 2021, where open-source intelligence experts from various police departments, the FBI, and private specialists studied more than 100Gb of data from social media to identify mob members.
Criminal investigations often hinge on OSINT methods of profiling: by bringing together an individual’s interests, connections, affiliations, modes of interaction, a detailed picture of the subject emerges. Such pictures are referred to as ‘digital footprints’ – digital impressions of a person’s behaviour which can be used to verify or falsify assertions or identities, as well embody evidence.
Digital footprinting is highly effective in uncovering fraud and corruption. It is extremely hard to erase all data points between people, and these can be crucially telling indicators of illicit cooperation. Time and again, OSINT sweeps establish digital connections between individuals, which the subjects were unaware even existed.
Weak Indicator Analysis
Open data is also a powerful resource for analyzing weak indicators – small, seemingly unimportant fragments of data which when considered together can paint a convincing picture. As well as providing circumstantial evidence, this type of analysis is also crucial in mapping the activities of large-scale criminal operations (gangs, terrorist organizations, arms/human trafficking groups) because connections can be established on many levels, linking individuals, groups, organizations, incidents and activities.
With criminal funding and illicit deals being increasingly transacted over the Dark Web via cryptocurrencies, analytical tools are necessary to monitor such activity. While bitcoin and other cryptos are largely considered anonymous, by exploring blockchains intelligently, transactions can be linked to user addresses, combating money laundering and fraud.
By analyzing blockchain data, the user can unpack money laundering systems to uncover their entire transactional structures, and connect addresses to stolen assets. Also, because malicious addresses tend to appear in scam reports, ongoing investigations, and social media discussions within the crypto community, OSINT tools can quickly flag up suspect crypto entities.
Routine Work vs Automation
When so much information has to be sifted through and made sense of, trying to remain focused and make effective decisions is hard. In such situations, software that processes open data is indispensable for law enforcement departments – the solution does the majority of the legwork so the investigator can free up time and make data-driven decisions faster and more effectively.
Speeding Up Processes
By gaining access to a wide array of powerful search functions, users have far greater control over the way information is extracted: relevant data can be zeroed in on, while superfluous material can be filtered away. Just as a camera is adjusted to get the best picture from a given light condition, so an investigator must select the best parameters to get the clearest – or most meaningful – results.
Say you want a list of all the Facebook profiles connected to a particular event, or all the social media accounts belonging to a given individual. Using OSINT tools, these results can be extracted in a matter of seconds with a couple of clicks, as opposed to spending hours scrolling through feeds trying to understand who is who and what is what.
With the term ‘machine learning’ becoming something of a buzzword across multiple industries, it is often underestimated, or even dismissed as a marketing gimmick. But in the field of OSINT, neural networks play a crucial role in the extraction and sorting of data – particularly in relation to image recognition.
Suppose you need to find all photos containing a certain person from among all the pictures on an Instagram account, or perhaps you need to find a single image containing a particular object – for instance a weapon – from a multitude of profiles. An algorithm can do that work just as reliably as any human, but in a fraction of the time. Meanwhile, you can just press a button and get your results.
Investigations That Go Deeper
Someone conducting research through social media might think that they are sinking their teeth into the main bulk of what is available – after all, as of 2022 Google’s web page indexing is up in the tens of billions. But with just 4% of the internet’s content being accessible via conventional search engines, this is really just the tip of the iceberg.
Access All Areas
The Dark Web has a notoriety for being essentially anonymous, however, tracks have to be willfully erased, and oversights occur more commonly than you might assume. Such lapses are opportunities for OSINT investigators. By connecting Surface Web accounts with counterparts in the Deep or Dark Web such as PGP keys, usernames, cryptocurrency addresses, investigators can gain deep insights into criminal activities and actors, and make breakthroughs in cases of varying kinds.
Another huge benefit of the way OSINT software harnesses data sources is their invisibility. Because the surveillance of open data can be conducted covertly, subjects remain totally unaware that they are being observed resulting in more authentic behavioral patterns being established. Furthermore, all points of interest can be continually monitored in real time assuring that all data feeding the investigation is up-to-date and accurate.
The use of digital forensics has become extremely widespread. In fact, criminal investigations which do not incorporate electronic data as evidence or leads are truly few and far between. However, this field needs to move in line with technological advance, and investigation units that do not adopt open-source intelligence solutions to aid their work are simply missing out on a daily basis.
The benefits of these technologies are manifold. They empower investigators to channel and filter a vast array of sources, expand the field of inquiry’s scope, generate results quicker with more accuracy and detail, save resources, and bring more cases to a satisfactory close. For LEAs and investigation bureaus the answer is simple – arm yourself with OSINT tools, supercharge your skills and get ahead of the game.
Looking for solutions to help you make the best possible data-driven decisions, and increase the speed and success rate of your cases? We have everything you need! Request for a guided tour of all the opportunities OSINT tools has to offer.