Intelligence gathering is vital to maintaining or securing your business assets. By having the right information at hand, policymakers, business leaders and security officers can make cool-headed, informed and efficient decisions during critical events.
Having historical facts; understanding context and knowing where to find answers are key aspects of critical thinking and strategy. In essence, good decision making comes from having all of the right facts – those facts can only be obtained with good research. Knowing the online history of a suspected terrorist by obtaining their social media comments or knowing what kind of hacking software is available online can help you assess a threat and implement preventive or protective measures. This is precisely what intelligence gathering is all about.
Gathering intelligence may sound like the speciality of government spies and informants; where hidden documents are passed around under cloak and dagger. In reality, any good business can gather intelligence. The easiest way to do so is by gathering Open Source Intelligence, or OSINT.
OSINT is accessing and gathering information from sources that are openly available to the public. This includes social media and anything found on the world wide web. Further, it is also possible to access databases (some with paid subscription) and sites on the deep web and dark web. So long as the information is not classified, it is possible to access this type of information legally and relatively safely.
Searching and using OSINT may require digging through layers of websites and finding links to other related pages that, in turn, may provide further information on the subject. Search engines such as Google or Yahoo can only provide websites that have been indexed for public viewing. Likewise, finding and reading through all these sites can be time consuming and overwhelming.
There are easy to access (and easy to use) tools that can help you search the web more comprehensively. These tools include:
- Meta Search Engines – these are search engines such as Deeperweb by Google that cluster websites together that discuss or relate to the search subject – they are then classified into contextualised sub files for easier browsing. For example, if you search for ‘fraud’ the search engine will find all websites containing the subject, but will also cluster them by theme such as ‘financial fraud’; ‘fraud in the news’, or ‘people who committed fraud’. This way, you can focus on the specific ‘fraud’ subjects that are more specific to your search.
- Internet Archives – all websites get cached and archived. On the Internet, nothing is ever truly deleted. Websites such as Wayback maintain a database of snapshots of deleted social media comments and inactive websites.
- Tor – this is required software to access the deep/dark web. By using Tor, you can search for websites that are not indexed for the public and would not be otherwise found on standard publically available search engines.
As there is so much information to access, it is important to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’. The Internet can provide an embarrassment of riches in terms of information. It is important to be critical in analysing the online information that is accessed. As can be seen in current social media campaigns, it is easy to spread disinformation that can affect decisions that lead to disastrous results. For example, The USA government was misled to believe that Iraq (back in the early 2000s) had acquired weapons of mass destruction (WMD). There was not enough verification of the intelligence obtained during that time, but it still motivated the US government enough to decide to invade the country.
A business decision or the execution of a security protocol or procedure can lead to failure if the research turns out to be incorrect. On the Internet, it can be tricky to determine if information being broadcast about a critical event, such as the movements of a terrorist, for example, are accurate. This was recently exemplified by ISIS’ false claim that the Las Vegas Shooter of last Sunday 2 October 2017 was a radicalised convert. There are tools online that can help any business or agency verify or clarify any information you might come across online to determine whether the incorporate is both valid and correct. Some tools are outlined below:
- Google Image Search – this is a simple tool that functions in Chrome. You can right click on an image and ‘search’ for it on other websites. This helps verify the provenance of the image, as well as ascertain whether it has been used in the right context. Some ‘fake news’ sites can easily take photos from anywhere on the Internet and caption them for their own purposes. This ensures that you can actually believe what you see.
- Search Referral Sites – Search Engine Optimisation software (SEO) can be useful in data mining websites by finding out who or where they are linked or connected to. This is particularly useful as some sites may have affiliate links that can be fake sites or spam news pages, set up only to garner webpage hits or divert viewer traffic.
- Fact checking Sites – There are some websites that search out the truth for you. Sites like Snopes.com are quick to verify any news items. More often than not, they are quicker to verify online information than some news sites.
Critical thinking can only be informed by good critical information. Gathering intelligence is essential in creating successful security procedures and business plans in general. Intelligence gathering also means that you may learn of new security issues – such as discovering the expanse of the deep web or finding out that certain news items are completely false. Learning to understand the information available to us can be hard, but managing how we understand it is the first step to optimising online security and driving intelligence gathering.
If you believe your organisation would benefit from the use of open source intelligence, do not hesitate to contact Agilient for advice and assistance in intelligence gathering activities.
The Agilient Team