What is Open-Source Intelligence? How to Get Started

Imagine a world intricately woven with connections, where information flows like a meandering river of possibilities.

This is the world we currently live in.

In the past, intelligence primarily revolved around strategic knowledge, used by decision-makers to gain advantages, often centred on foreign capabilities, global events, and local concerns, particularly in the military and security spheres.

However, in the world today, intelligence is readily available especially across diverse domains, spanning from supply chain, trade, and finance to culture and education. Advancements in technology have reshaped the definition of intelligence. What was previously the domain of the powerful is now accessible to many.

The Origins of Open-Source Intelligence

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has its origin within the U.S. intelligence community, tracing back over half a century. Its origins can be traced to World War II, when it was employed to monitor propaganda broadcasts, later contributing to intelligence efforts during the Cold War.

The modern era of OSINT was ushered in with the expansion of the internet, particularly the rise of social media. In the mid-2000s, the Open-Source Centre was established to facilitate the collection and sharing of open-source information among intelligence agencies.

OSINT’s importance was underscored by events like the 2009 Iranian Green Revolution, where social media unveiled a comprehensive view of an uprising despite media blackouts.

As time progressed, the role of OSINT expanded, embracing novel technologies even in the domain of cyber and information security.

The Role of OSINT in the Current Threat Landscape

Open-source intelligence, often abbreviated as OSINT, involves the craft of intelligence gathering and enrichment through publicly accessible information, sometimes for the purpose of security testing by organisations or to understand the threat landscape they may be faced with. This encompasses data available to the public without the need for secret clearances or invasive system penetration.

This data reservoir includes not only openly accessible internet sources and social media but also mainstream media, publications, audio, imagery, videos, and geospatial/satellite data.

Prominent platforms such as LinkedIn, X (previously Twitter), Reddit, Instagram, TikTok, Threads, and Snapchat, coupled with advancements in mapping and satellite technologies, have revolutionised the dynamics of data. These platforms now host an extensive repository of user-generated data, which is harnessed in innovative ways.

Even with the advent of Web 3.0 (Blockchain) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), The OSINT framework plays a pivotal role in aiding decision-making, assessing public perception, predicting change, and gathering security intelligence for organisations.  

The Importance of OSINT for Security Testing

The evolving threat landscape has given rise to OSINT communities on social media platforms which provide a wellspring of free education and innovative tools hosted on GitHub’s open-source platform to gain insights into emerging threats and human behaviour even in organisations.

Its use is not limited to malicious threat actors seeking to gain access to an organisation’s assets and infrastructure, but is also leveraged by law enforcement, governments and organisations for the following use cases.

  • Security and Threat Intelligence: Organisations use OSINT to monitor and analyse potential threats to their security, including cyber threats, physical security risks, and reputational risks. By monitoring online discussions, hacker forums, and social media, they can identify potential vulnerabilities and take proactive measures to address them.
  • Competitive Intelligence: Businesses use OSINT to gather information about competitors, industry trends, and market dynamics. This information can help organisations make strategic decisions, develop new products or services, and stay ahead of their competition.
  • Risk Assessment: OSINT is used to assess risks associated with various activities, locations, or individuals. Organisations can gather data on political stability, social unrest, natural disasters, and other factors that might impact their operations.
  • Fraud Detection: Financial institutions and e-commerce companies use OSINT to identify potential fraudsters and patterns of fraudulent activity. By analysing publicly available data, they can spot unusual behaviour and take appropriate action.

Open-Source Intelligence Tools

There are several OSINT tools used by individuals and organisations for the threat monitoring and security testing of their infrastructure. Some of these include.

  • Maltego: A powerful OSINT tool that provides a graphical interface for link analysis and data visualisation.
  • Shodan: A search engine for discovering Internet-connected devices, including servers, routers, and other networked devices.
  • theHarvester: A tool for gathering email accounts, subdomains, virtual hosts, and open ports from public sources.
  • OSINT Framework: A collection of various OSINT tools and resources categorised for easier navigation.
  • SpiderFoot: An OSINT automation tool that gathers information from various sources, including search engines, social networks, and more.
  • Censys: Another search engine that focuses on identifying devices and systems on the Internet.
  • Recon-ng: A full-featured reconnaissance framework that provides multiple modules for data collection.
  • Amass: A tool for in-depth DNS enumeration and information gathering about target domains.
  • GatherContacts: Specifically designed for finding and collecting contact information from different sources.
  • Photon: A web crawler designed to extract useful information from websites, such as URLs, email addresses, and more.

OSINT Best Practices for Security Audits

It’s important to note that some of these tools should be used responsibly and legally. Always ensure you have proper authorisation before using them on any target. Additionally, the effectiveness of these tools may vary depending on the context and target, so it’s important to understand their capabilities and limitations.

At Risk Crew, we seamlessly integrate Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) into every facet of our security audits, encompassing threat intelligence and penetration testing. Our approach aligns with the Open-Source Security Testing Methodology Manual (OSSTMM) developed by the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies (ISECOM).

This rigorously peer-reviewed methodology ensures precise operational security characterisation for tasks such as penetration testing and security assessments. By centring our efforts on verified facts, OSSTMM empowers our fact-based decision-making, ensuring that organisations are well-informed in their chosen methodologies.

In a landscape where some accept the status quo, we think deeply, question assumptions, detect cause and effect, and deliver measurable results.

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