Online research has become a critical business function and an invaluable practice to government and law enforcement agencies, but there are still lots of ways for researchers to stumble.

Online research can be a double-edged sword. The internet offers a wealth of information on anything — and anyone. But this volume of information can also present a challenge to researchers looking to zero-in on the specific details that can make or break their investigation.

Conducting online research can be like looking not just for a needle in a haystack, but a needle in a stack of needles. Subscribe to the podcast for professional online research, NeedleStack, on our website or wherever you get your podcasts.

Online research also carries an inherent risk. What and whom you’re looking into can look back. If you don’t understand how to conceal your digital fingerprint, you may expose your identity and intent and end up spoiling your own research. Once an investigative target can recognize your digital fingerprint, they can block you or track you; target you with malware or disinformation; uncover your true identity or who you’re working for and retaliate in any number of ways.

That said, the benefits of online research are critical to your investigation. With the right knowledge, tools and tradecraft, the web shouldn’t be something to fear. We’ll look at the impact online research has, what are the risks to those who perform sensitive research and what needs to change to better protect yourself and your organization.

What is professional online research?

Professional online research is research on the surface, deep or dark web by anyone needing to find information and connections to achieve a specific goal. The “professional” designation simply means that the research is done in connection with someone’s job (rather than as a hobby or simply casual Googling).

It may seem like only the responsibility of government agencies, law enforcement or law firms, but professional online research isn't limited strictly to intelligence and evidence gathering. Online research is conducted in industries across the board, from research related to cybersecurity intelligence, trust and safety, brand misuse and more.

What all of these vast and varied use cases have in common is protection — of citizens, of customers, of businesses or brands. And the better the protection, the better the research, as we discuss below.

What are the risks of online research?

Because online research involves, well, being online, it comes with the risk of malware. Any site could contain malicious content which could infect researchers’ machines or spread through their network.

In addition to cyber risks, researchers using traditional browsers to conduct their investigations could be giving away crucial details about themselves to sites they visit. Browsers like Chrome, Safari, etc. pass dozens of data points about each visitor to a sites’ webmaster.

The combination of these details can create highly unique profiles. If a profile looks suspicious, the webmaster could take action that would spoil the research:

  • Block the researcher’s access to the site or go into hiding
  • Target the researcher with disinformation
  • Infect their machine with malware or spyware to track them
  • Use the digital fingerprint to piece together the researcher’s real identity (who you work for, where you live, who you’re related to, etc.) and retaliate

How to improve online research for better results

The first step is admitting you have a problem. Know what information is leaking to the targets you’re investigating, how it’s being leaked and how it can be compiled to uncover your identity and intent.

Some of the information that can uncover your identity are attributes associated with your browser and computer:

  • IP address
  • Location
  • Device type
  • Operating system
  • Time zone
  • Language settings
  • Keyboard settings
  • Cookies

Also keep in mind patterns of behavior that are directly related to you such as time of use, websites visited, social media connections and shopping preferences. All these things can expose your identity.

If you are guilty of leaking one or more of these attributes or habits, understand that it’s going to take more than a VPN or incognito browser to conceal this information. Even dirty networks are imperfect — and certainly cumbersome to access and use.

Failure to properly disguise your digital fingerprint can jeopardize your online research and can also put you and your organization at risk of retaliation.

You can improve your tradecraft to counteract these risks by knowing how to blend in with the crowd. Mimic the normal website visitor of the target website of your investigation by managing the attributes of your digital fingerprint.

The right knowledge, tools and tradecraft will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your online research by masking your identity and and avoid tipping off investigative targets.

For more real world examples and techniques on how to better conduct online research check out the NeedleStack podcast. Watch episode 1 now.

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