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Open source intelligence (OSINT) serves as a critical tool for law enforcement and investigators, however, its increased use by adversaries and hackers have presented threats to national security and individuals. Counterintelligence and tradecraft continue to be instrumental in mitigating threats whether from domestic or foreign actors.

This week, we explore how OSINT is utilized in both positive and negative ways, plus the gray area that lies between. From vigilante hackers to national security, OSINT plays a major role in the internet landscape.

How vigilante hackers use OSINT

True crime fans may be interested in how vigilante hackers utilize OSINT to conduct searches in place of law enforcement. When not conducted by government agents, their findings can sometimes be admissible in court, even when illegally or unconsentually gathered, helping to catch sex traffickers, child pornographers and solve other crimes of that nature.

While “catching a predator” is a seemingly great moral usage of these tactics, the strategies used by anonymous hacker groups may still be illegal even when done for ethical reasons. Further, misguided allegations of innocent persons can cause real-world harm and sometimes even considered doxing. This ethical hacking unfortunately has the potential to cause as many problems as it solves.

“To be clear, things such as geolocation of images on social media through highly sophisticated software, finding hidden metadata in various other media and piecing together behaviors associated with a crime by scouring everything about them on the internet or dark net, is Open Source Intelligence gathering which can be very productive and a genuine help to law enforcement. Be careful, however, of crossing that line into intrusive or deceptive acts that may make things worse, for both you and the people who are paid to seek and administer justice.”

— Joe Jabara, Clearance Jobs

Government transparency and OSINT

Open data is a pinnacle of democratic governments, but that openness can also unfortunately be mined by adversaries to discover key secrets. As the use of OSINT grows, data disseminated to the public becomes more at risk for being analyzed by hackers to obtain intelligence. The lack of consistency between state and local governments adds to the risk.

Release of information to the public is an important part of transparent government. But the adversarial use of open source data can also make it a vulnerability, easily able to be used for the extraction of important intelligence. Analysis of potential risks and counterintelligence on how aggregated datasets may be used by adversaries can help manage risks while remaining open and democratic.

“A democratic government that limits access to public information that earlier has been accessible to the public will face challenges to legitimacy, authority, and confidence in how government performs its duties. The balance between governmental openness and cyberdefense relies on a risk assessment of open data policy itself, and how to mitigate these risks while maintaining transparency and openness.”

— Dr. Jan Kallberg, The CyberWire

Illiberal regimes and digital order

China and Russia’s use of digital technologies to tighten civic control are creating a roadmap for autocrats around the world. China’s use of facial recognition allows for strict control of citizens. Russia utilizes less sophisticated digital means of strict government but also more easily replicated ones. As the two governments vie to control the digital order, the cooperation of the United States’ largest adversaries could prove detrimental to national security.

The Center for New American Security recommends a coalition of democratic allies and a policy response on behalf of the U.S. It also calls for specific outreach with Indo-Pacific, like-minded nations and industry leaders. Countering China’s influence is a key measure of the proposed strategies

“The United States must take a leadership role, recognizing that the future digital order is at stake.”

— Cirillo, Curtis, et al. Center for a New American Security

Domestic threats and disinformation 

The Department of Homeland Security released an updated National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Bulletin detailing heightened risks of both domestic and foreign threats during the holiday season. The pandemic has created increased tensions, especially among those referred to in the report as domestic violent extremists (DVEs) because of the perceived government overreach of implementing public safety measures.

Both foreign and domestic actors continue to use social media and other online means to disseminate disinformation. As false narratives and conspiracy theories continue to be broadly shared, law enforcement agents have expressed concern about increasingly radicalized domestic actors.

“DHS is engaging industry partners to help them identify and respond to the spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and false narratives on social media and other online platforms.

— Department of Homeland Security

OSINT’s rise in popularity has led to its use by vigilante hackers and adversaries, in addition to cyber intelligence officials. As it becomes more regularly utilized by foreign nations and hackers, risk assessment is important for counterintelligence and national security efforts. For private citizens, even seemingly ethical uses, such as catching traffickers and predators, can still have misguided and damaging effects.

To keep up to date on the latest OSINT and cyber security news, visit the Authentic8 blog.  

TAGS OSINT

About the Author

Abel Vandegrift
Abel Vandegrift
Washington, D.C.

As Director of Government Strategy at Authentic8, Abel advises the federal business team on policy development and budget trends to identify growth opportunities and shape customer engagement.

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