Open-source intelligence plays a large role in closing investigations, but it’s still underutilized in the field. Here’s why.
Despite the abundance of open-source information available, law enforcement agencies are still slow to adopt open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques and policies. While there are occasional bombshell reports of murders solved by fitness app geolocation like Strava and implications of culpability in private texts, OSINT is still regarded as the less-disciplined, wildcard resource in many agencies. But outlook aside, there are logistical reasons for the constraints in using OSINT.
After sitting down with legal expert and former FBI agent Richard Denholm for a recent podcast episode on NeedleStack, he outlined some of the crucial hurdles keeping law enforcement from making better use of OSINT.
There are three main roadblocks standing in the way of more efficient collection of publicly available information (PAI) for solving crimes. Full of potential, OSINT could become a key resource for investigators, but these problems currently stand in the way.
1. Resource Constraints
Due to the scale of open-source information available, OSINT can be a double-edged sword. Casting the net too wide can overwhelm resource-strapped departments as they try to access, collect, analyze and verify information. They may not have the tools or manpower to harness the wealth of information available.
But the value of OSINT to law enforcement is undeniable. It’s important to assess cost-effective ways to make use of OSINT, especially when weighing the cost of tools against man hours. Automating targeted collections or multi-search workflows can be a good way to recoup staff time and allow them to focus on analysis and verification rather than simply obtaining open-source information.
2. Concern for Civil Liberties
Social media is still relatively new, and its position in the social fabric (while dominant) is still being forged. Officially, information that is made public on social media is “fair game,” as legal expert Richard Denholm puts it. There is no obligation under the law for government or law enforcement officials to treat publicly available information (PAI) on social media as private — that onus rests with individuals to keep their information from being in the public domain.
But even with this legal free pass, many law enforcement and government officials strive to protect the privacy of individuals in their research. They also have to be sure to protect first and fourth amendment rights of individuals in their investigations.
For law enforcement officers, local and state jurisdictions can have varying laws about the collection of open-source information. Some may even conflict with each other. Investigators have to understand the laws where they are operating and how they relate to civil liberties when conducting their investigations, because they have as much of a duty to follow the law as they do to enforce it. Even federal agents have to know the state laws for where they are working. And for that matter, even private businesses conducting intelligence analysis should know the laws where they work.
Information is great, but it’s not intelligence until it has been analyzed. The key difference between open-source information and OSINT is the role analysts play in interpreting, contextualizing and verifying or debunking the information available. The former FBI director once referred to OSINT as, “Searching for a needle in a stack of needles,” — a clever play on an old idiom and also the inspiration for our professional online research podcast, NeedleStack. The idea keys into a source of frustration with OSINT. A stack of information may seem tantalizing if you are caught in an investigation with no leads. But combing through data point after data point, only to find dead ends or irrelevant information can be cumbersome and time-consuming.
While finding skilled analysts can present difficulties, the ability to train your staff on OSINT collection is available. Consider training programs that:
- Educate officers on the value of open-source information
- Cover the relevant legal and policy restrictions on collection
- Explain cybersecurity considerations and safeguards to use when performing online research
- Teach tradecraft best practices to conceal an investigator’s identity and affiliation with law enforcement while performing online research
OSINT offers endless possibilities for solving investigations. Yet the ability to collect, interpret and analyze scores of information available — and then piece together what is relevant or may have leads — can be an endless hamster wheel for under-resourced departments. Investigators need tools and techniques to automate where possible and the know-how to identify what information will be worth their time and efforts. As OSINT grows as a discipline in the intelligence world, so too will its role in law enforcement. Will your department be at the forefront of utilizing OSINT?
The automation tools, security and anonymity offered by Silo for Research can assist law enforcement officials with their investigations. To learn more about using Silo for intelligence and evidence gathering, click here.Law enforcement