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Introduction

Today, our symbiotic relationship with the internet means we live, work, socialise, shop, bank, book holiday’s, read the news, manage health services, research, learn and date online. Our infrastructure is digitally dependent – water, fuel, transport, military, specialist communications and even medical surgical services rely on the internet. The implications of which highlight the profound connectivity of a vast data stream. A conduit into the personal space of every single individual with access to the internet. This provides unparalleled exploitative opportunities for individuals (including but not limited to) organised crime groups, predatory individuals, terrorists, radical individuals, stalkers, fraudsters, scammers, extremists, assassins, drugs/contraband cartels and human traffickers. Almost every conceivable crime perpetrated in the physical domain may also be perpetrated in the digital realm (including homicide). Moreover, those crimes perpetrated in the physical realm only (homicide/assault), are almost always connected in some way to the digital sphere.

Since its inception, the internet continues to expand and has become integrated into every aspect of society and daily life. Over the past four decades, the internet has grown exponentially from being a novel realm of basic web browsing with primitive newsgroups, email, chatrooms and messaging into becoming the foundation of our data driven world. Global internet users at the start of 2023 reached 5.1bn (Statista, 2023). Internet penetration now stands at nearly 64.4 percent of the world’s population of which 59.4 percent are social media users. A brief measure of the power of internet communications; as of April 2023, WhatsApp (followed by Telegram then Signal) is the most popular messaging application worldwide with 2bn monthly active users exchanging 4.2 billion messages per hour. The most popular social media application is Facebook followed by YouTube. Demographically, users aged between 25-34 still make up the highest percentage – 33.8 percent of users.

Investigating: The digital terrain

Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) utilises methods, tools and techniques to gather, analyse and process data to produce actionable intelligence. Our military, law enforcement and other specialist agencies have utilised OSINT for several years. OSINT has, for the most part finally made the hall of investigative fame here in the United Kingdom (across the pond, OSINT has resonated with vivid flow for decades). OSINT includes the sub-divisions:

  • Social media
  • News and media
  • Grey literature
  • Dark web

Skills, tools and techniques are research or case dependent. Analysts and investigators will use strategic overt and covert methods of intelligence gathering, including infiltration. As previously highlighted, OSINT is used in almost all investigations. Just a few case types include:

  • Missing persons
  • Persons of interest
  • Child sexual exploitation
  • Human trafficking
  • Fraud/insurance/financial crime
  • Cybercrime
  • Hate crime
  • Stalking
  • Homicide
  • Organised crime
  • Terrorism and extremism
  • Civil unrest
  • Human rights

Corporate entities utilise OSINT:

  • Due diligence
  • Backgrounding
  • Fact-finding
  • Fraud
  • Vulnerability assessments
  • Business and country risk
  • Competitor and analysis
  • Trace

The depth and breadth of data gathering, processing and analysing is multifaceted. Physiological and psychological profiles are uncovered by skilled analysts who study language, language patterns, tone, mood and posture, habits, triggers, images and much more. OSINT contributes to thwarting crime (including serious crime), locating offenders, locating victims, uncovering the facts, understanding group-think and the bandwagon effect (and the possible implications of these reverberating echo chambers).

Underestimating the value of OSINT may potentially place businesses and investigations at a significant disadvantage.

Open Source Intelligence presentation

Open-Source Intelligence