Thought for the day on OSINT

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by Frank Elsner @chiefelsner

How is it that some organizations seem to be clairvoyant and know in advance what to expect, while others are caught flat footed? What is the advantage they have over others? The answer is open-source intelligence or OSINT for short.

OSINT has become a  mainstream means of intelligence gathering for governments, private firms, individuals, and even the media.

OSINT has been around for many years, gaining traction during the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS) was established to monitor foreign radio stations to better understand what the axis powers were telling their citizens or what propaganda was aimed at the allies and their leaders (Barnouw). After the war, the importance of OSINT diminished as it was primarily used by governments monitoring other foreign governments, who also appreciated the value of OSINT and therefore were very careful of what they publicly released, to either protect their secrets or to spread misinformation. All changed after the 9-11 attacks (9-11 Commission Report) and the growth of social media for the masses.

So, what is open source intelligence in today’s context, and is it private? OSINT is publicly available data that is captured from various open (public) sources that is then analysed to determine if the information is relevant to the entity. The main qualifiers to open-source information are that they do not require any type of clandestine collection techniques to obtain the information and that the information must be obtained through means “that entirely meet the copyright and commercial requirements of the vendors were applicable” (George, 2005).

Types of Open (Public) Sources           

  • Web-based communities and user generated content: social networking sites, video sharing sites, wikis and blogs
  • Traditional mass media: newspapers, magazines, radio and television
  • Geospatial Information: maps and commercial imagery
  • Public Data: public government reports, budgets, hearings, telephone directories, press conferences, websites, and speeches
  • Professional and Academic: journals, conferences, symposia,acedemic papers, and theses
  • Other: technical reports, preprints, patents, working papers, business documents, unpublished works, and newsletters (3Si OSINT Exemplar) 

Who is interested? Gone are the days where governments had the sole ability and reasons to gather intelligence. Today, many entities value open source intelligence for a multitude of reasons. Protecting legitimate business interests, either physical assets or people, is a fundamental responsibility for business leaders today. With the mass use of social media today, to not utilize open source data to understand what is going on around you would be negligent.

Where to use  There are many legitimate uses for OSINT in our society today. Leaders routinely and successfully have used OSINT for:

  • Protests or Barricades – that may affect entity
  • Counter Criminal/Terrorism – are people calling for criminal/terrorist action
  • Large public gatherings – should staff avoid area
  • Understand public sentiment – is a low or high key approach better
  • Understand – what is happening in areas where news is limited
  • Make better business decisions – expand operations, evacuate staff etc.
  • Faster or direct information – in dynamic, fast-paced situations
  • Human Resources – hiring
  • Media – deploy reporters

 Issues  Many in-house and external security providers proport to provide OSINT. However, merely trolling the internet and providing a dump of information is not OSINT. There is much more to the process of intelligence collection. The old adage of junk in equals junk out rings true in this context. OSINT analysts must not only systematically collect the data, but also know where to look and separate the chaff from the wheat as the vast volume of public information can be overwhelming. They must also be aware of the: Reliability of information

  • Can the information be independently corroborated?
  • Is the information accurate or rumour?
  • Is it relevant information?

Evaluation of the information

  • How valuable is the information to the entity?
  • Is it actionable information or just nice to know?
  • Is the information timely or time sensitive?

Analysis of the information

  • What is the possible impact to the entity?
  • What is the impact of action or inaction?

Classification of the information

  • Who needs to sees the OSINT report?
  • Why do they need to see the OSINT report?

Therefore, it is critical to have highly trained and experienced analysts who can take the raw data given them and incorporate the data into a useful and reliable document that can be used by the entity to make sound decisions.  The impact of failure is too great not to do so.

Privacy concerns are sometimes raised as a point of contention with OSINT. These concerns are based primarily on the fact that the author of the information did not intend the information to be used by someone else for a different purpose than the author intended. Remembering that only open source information, which is available to anyone in the public, is utilized; there is no, nor should there be, an expectation of privacy. Having said that, entities using OSINT are only concerned with what directly effects their enterprises.


OSINT is a powerful and useful tool for understanding the world around us and protecting what is important. It provides an insight to otherwise unheard voices that may have a profound impact on the decisions leaders must make. Used appropriately, along with professional analysts who can decipher what is important, OSINT has the potential to see the future.

We love talking about Intelligence Led Security and how it is a fresh way of discussing security issues.  Please don’t be shy to call us or drop a line at

Photo Credit : thanks affen ajife 

Barnouw, Erik (1968). A History of Broadcasting in the United States New York: Oxford University Press. p.400
9-11 Commission Report. p.413
George, edited by Roger Z; Kline, Robert D; Lownethal, Mark M (2005). Intelligence and the national security strategist: enduring issues and challenges. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.
3Si Open Source Intelligence Corporate Security Exemplar, June 2017

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