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General Guide To Understanding Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

man sitting and reading newspapers OSINT
Private Investigators Have Always Used Open Source for Intelligence and Investigations Before It Became a Fad


Information is the most potent currency, and those who can harness it hold the key to solving complex puzzles and unveiling hidden truths. Private investigators are the modern-day Sherlock Holmes, tasked with piecing together the fragments of individuals' lives, corporate secrets, or legal cases.

Contrary to the belief of modern social media, private investigators have been conducting open source investigations before it was the new fad of the decade. Now every YouTube'r talks about the subject. The truth is, any private detective, or police detective for that matter, have been using publicly sourced information to aid them in their investigations long before it was the latest great topic to vlog about.

What is OSINT?

OSINT, or Open Source Intelligence, is data collected from publicly available sources to be used in an intelligence context. This information can be accessed without any type of clandestine methods and is available to the general public. Sources for OSINT include information from the media (newspapers, radio, television, etc.), professional and academic records (papers, conferences, professional networks, etc.), public data (government reports, budgets, hearings, telephone directories, speeches, etc.), and more recently, the Internet (blogs, forums, social networking sites, and other forms of social media).

Historical Military Beginnings

The term "open source" originates from the CIA's use of the term to describe overt, publicly available sources (as opposed to covert or classified sources). It is important to note that the use of open sources by intelligence agencies is not new. Sun Tzu, in "The Art of War," speaks about the importance of knowing the enemy and understanding a multitude of factors that could be considered early forms of intelligence gathering. However, the formalization of OSINT started in the military and intelligence communities during World War II, when all sides used publicly available information to gain insight into the intentions, resources, and conditions of other nations. During the Cold War, OSINT became a key component of the intelligence used by both sides, given the need to gather as much information as possible about an adversary without provoking hostilities.

In the contemporary era, OSINT has continued to be a critical part of national security operations. In the United States, for example, the CIA's Directorate of Digital Innovation is heavily involved in collecting OSINT through various forms of electronic and digital data.

How OSINT is Gathered

OSINT is gathered through a process that starts with identifying the intelligence requirements and planning the collection. Analysts then collect information from available sources, evaluate the information for reliability and relevance, and then analyze the data to create actionable intelligence.

The internet has revolutionized OSINT collection. Today, much of this collection takes place online, as vast amounts of information are shared digitally. Social media platforms, blogs, news sites, online databases, forums, and other internet resources are treasure troves of information. Advanced search engines, data scraping tools, digital forensic techniques, and software that analyzes and organizes large data sets (big data) are all part of modern OSINT operations.

The Subsets of OSINT

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) encompasses a wide range of information and sources. The intelligence community often divides these into different subsets based on the nature of the source material or the methods used for gathering information. Understanding these subsets is crucial for effectively navigating the vast landscape of open-source data. Here are the primary subsets of OSINT:

Public Records (PUBREC)

Public Records, often abbreviated as PUBREC in the context of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), refer to documents, materials, or information that are not considered confidential and are legally available to the public. These records are typically created or maintained by government agencies, or at times, by public bodies and organizations. PUBREC is a crucial subset of OSINT, offering a wealth of data for various investigative and analytical purposes.

Types of Public Records:

Vital Records: These are records of life's critical milestones and include birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and divorce decrees. These documents can help trace family history, verify individual identities, and establish familial relationships.

Property and Land Records: These include deeds, mortgage documents, and property tax information, providing insight into property ownership, value, transaction history, and legal descriptions of properties. They are instrumental for investigations involving property disputes, fraud, or real estate market analysis.

Court Records: These encompass criminal records, civil case files, bankruptcy filings, and judgments. Court records are indispensable for background checks, legal research, journalistic investigations, and understanding the litigation history associated with individuals or corporations.

Professional Licenses: Records of professional licenses verify the credentials of individuals in various fields like medicine, law, construction, and more. They are crucial for validating the legitimacy of practitioners, assessing qualifications, and sometimes, viewing any disciplinary actions taken against professionals.

Business Records: These include corporate filings, business licenses, annual reports, and records of incorporation that detail a company's structure, ownership, financial health, and regulatory compliance. They are vital for corporate due diligence, competitive analysis, and investigative journalism.

Voter and Election Records: These records provide information on voter registration, past electoral results, and sometimes, candidate filings. They are critical for political campaigns, sociological research, and public sector transparency.

Government Expenditures and Contracts: Public records on government spending, contracts, grants, and procurement are essential for accountability, investigative reporting, market research for companies seeking government contracts, and oversight by watchdog groups.

Importance of Public Records in Investigations:

Background Checks: Private investigators, employers, and landlords rely on public records to vet candidates, potential tenants, or any individuals they're considering for a relationship, be it personal, professional, or financial.

Legal Proceedings: Lawyers utilize public records to gather evidence, understand the precedent, prepare for litigation, and support due diligence efforts.

Fraud Prevention: Financial institutions and investigators use public records to prevent fraud, uncovering hidden assets, undisclosed liabilities, or conflicting information that suggests fraudulent activity.

Genealogy Research: Individuals tracing their ancestry utilize vital records to construct family trees and understand their heritage.

Journalism: Investigative reporters rely heavily on public records to uncover stories related to corruption, public interest, government spending, and more.

Media Intelligence (MEDINT)

Media Intelligence (MEDINT), a significant subset of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), involves the collection and analysis of information that is accessible through traditional media sources like newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and including newer forms of digital media such as online news websites, blogs, podcasts, and digital editions of traditional media. MEDINT is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of public discourse, sentiment analysis, trend identification, and decision-making across various sectors.

Components of Media Intelligence:

Print Media: Despite the rise of digital media, print media sources like newspapers and magazines remain valuable for in-depth analysis, investigative journalism, and expert opinions. Archives of print publications provide historical context, which is crucial for longitudinal studies.