Have you ever stopped to consider the volume of new data created daily on social media? It’s staggering. Take Twitter, for instance. Approximately 500 million tweets are published every day, adding up to more than 200 billion posts per year. On Facebook, users upload an additional 350 million photos per day, and on YouTube, nearly 720,000 hours of new video content is added every 24 hours.

While this overwhelming volume of information may be of no concern to your average social media user posting updates to keep up with family and friends, it’s of particular interest to corporate security and safety professionals who are increasingly using it to monitor current events and detect potential risks around their people and locations—all in real-time. Meet the fast-paced and oft-confusing world of open-source intelligence (OSINT).

What is Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)?

The U.S. Department of State defines OSINT as, “intelligence that is produced from publicly available information and is collected, exploited, and disseminated promptly to an appropriate audience to address a specific intelligence requirement.”

The concept of monitoring and leveraging publicly available information sources for intelligence purposes dates back to the 1930s. The British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) was approached by the British government and asked to develop a new service that would capture and analyze print journalism from around the world.

Monitoring and identifying potential threats

Originally named the “Digest of Foreign Broadcast, the service (later renamed BBC Monitoring which still exists today) captured and analyzed nearly 1.25 million broadcast words every day to help British intelligence officials keep tabs on conversations taking place abroad and what foreign governments were saying to their constituents.

OSINT encompasses any publicly accessible information that can be used to monitor and identify potential threats

Today, OSINT broadly encompasses any publicly accessible information that can be used to monitor and identify potential threats and/or relevant events with the potential to impact safety or business operations.

The potential of OSINT data is extraordinary. Not only can it enable security and safety teams to quickly identify pertinent information that may pose a material risk to their business or people, but it can also be captured by anyone with the right set of tools and training.

OSINT for cybersecurity and physical threat detection

Whether it be a significant weather event, supply chain disruptions, or a world health crisis few saw coming, the threats facing organizations continue to increase in size and scale.

Luckily, OSINT has been able to accelerate how organizations detect, validate, and respond to these threats, and it has proved invaluable in reducing risk and informing decision-making – especially during emergencies.

OSINT is typically shared in real-time, so once a situation is reported, security teams can then work on verifying critical details such as the location or time an incident occurred or provide the most up-to-date information about rapidly developing events on the ground. They can then continue to monitor online chatter about the crisis, increasing their situational awareness and speeding up their incident response times.

OSINT applications

OSINT can help detect when sensitive company information may have been accessed by hackers 

Severe weather offers a good example of OSINT in action. Say an organization is located in the Great Plains. They could use OSINT from sources like the National Weather Service or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to initiate emergency communications to employees about tornado warnings, high winds, or other dangerous conditions as they are reported.

Another common use case for OSINT involves data breaches and cyber-attacks. OSINT can help detect when sensitive company information may have been accessed by hackers by monitoring dark web messaging boards and forums. In 2019, T-Cellphone suffered a data breach that affected more than a million customers, but it was able to quickly alert affected users after finding their personal data online.

OSINT is a well-established field with countless applications. Unfortunately, in an ever-changing digital world, it’s not always enough to help organizations weather a crisis.

Why OSINT alone isn’t enough?

One of the core challenges with leveraging OSINT data, especially social media intelligence (SOCMINT), is that much of it is unstructured and spread across many disparate sources, making it difficult to sort through, manage, and organize.

Consider the social media statistics above. Assuming a business wanted to monitor all conversations on Twitter to ensure all relevant information was captured, it would need to both capture and analyze 500 million individual posts every day. Assuming a trained analyst spent just three seconds analyzing each post, that would amount to 1.5 billion seconds of labor—equivalent to 416,666 hours—just to keep pace.

While technology and filters can greatly reduce the burden and help organizations narrow the scope of their analysis, it’s easy to see how quickly human capital constraints can limit the utility of OSINT data—even for the largest companies.

Challenges with OSINT

OSINT data collection includes both passive and active techniques, each requiring a different level of effort and skill

Additionally, collecting OSINT data is time-consuming and resource-intensive. Making sense of it remains a highly specialized skill set requiring years of training. In an emergency where every second count, the time required to sift through copious amounts of information takes far longer than the time in which an organization must take meaningful action to alter the outcome.

Compounding the issue, OSINT data is noisy and difficult to filter. Even trained analysts find the need to constantly monitor, search, and filter voluminous troves of unstructured data tedious. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have helped weed through some of this data faster, but for organizations with multiple locations tasked with monitoring hundreds or thousands of employees, it’s still a challenging task.

Adding to the complexity, collecting OSINT data isn’t easy. OSINT data collection includes both passive and active techniques, each requiring a different level of effort and skill.

Passive vs Active OSINT

Passive OSINT is typically anonymous and meant to avoid drawing attention to the person requesting the information. Scrolling user posts on public social media profiles is a good example of passive OSINT. Active OSINT refers to information proactively sought out, but it often requires a more purposeful effort to retrieve it. That may mean specific login details are needed to access a website where information is stored.

Lastly, unverified OSINT data can’t always be trusted. Analysts often encounter false positives or fake reports, which not only take time to confirm accuracy, but if they act on misinformation, the result could be damage to their organization’s reputation or worse.

So, how can companies take advantage of it without staffing an army of analysts or creating operational headaches?

A new path for OSINT

Organisations can leverage the benefits of OSINT to improve situational awareness and aid decision-making

Fortunately, organizations can leverage the benefits of OSINT to improve situational awareness and aid decision-making without hiring a dedicated team of analysts to comb through the data. By combining OSINT data with third-party threat intelligence solutions, organizations can get a cleaner, more actionable view of what’s happening in the world.

Threat intelligence solutions not only offer speed by monitoring for only the most relevant events 24/7/365, but they also offer more comprehensive coverage of a wide range of threat types. What’s more, the data is often verified and married with location intelligence to help organizations better understand if, how, and to what extent each threat poses a risk to their people, facilities, and assets.

In a world with a never-ending stream of information available, learning how to parse and interpret it becomes all the more important. OSINT is a necessary piece to any organization’s threat intelligence and monitoring system, but it can’t be the only solution. Paired with external threat intelligence tools, OSINT can help reduce risk and keep employees safe during emergencies and critical events.

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Sara Pratley Vice President Global Intelligence, AlertMedia

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