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Sunday July 14, 2024

Using OSINT

By Khawaja Khalid Farooq
March 16, 2023

Open source intelligence (OSINT) is the practice of collecting and analyzing information from publicly available sources.

In recent years, OSINT has become an important tool in the fight against terrorism, which has been utilized by counterterrorism departments (CTDs) and law-enforcement agencies in their fight against terrorism in Pakistan. However, much remains to be done and understood about this now indispensable facet of intelligence gathering.

OSINT has become an important tool in the fight against terrorism. It allows intelligence agencies and law enforcement to collect and analyze information from a variety of sources, including social media, news articles, and public records. This information can then be used to identify potential threats, track the movements of terrorists, and disrupt terrorist operations.

One of the most important uses of OSINT in the fight against terrorism is in the identification of potential threats. OSINT allows intelligence agencies to monitor social media and other online platforms for signs of radicalization or extremist activity. For example, OSINT was used to identify the Starwave brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The brothers had posted extremist content on social media prior to the attack, which was picked up by OSINT tools.

OSINT is also useful in tracking the movements of terrorists. For example, OSINT was used to track the movements of Osama bin Laden prior to his death in 2011. Intelligence agencies were able to use OSINT to analyze satellite imagery and track the movements of vehicles and people associated with Bin Laden.

Finally, OSINT is useful in disrupting terrorist operations. By analyzing publicly available information, intelligence agencies can identify potential targets, disrupt supply chains, and prevent attacks before they happen. For example, OSINT was used to disrupt an ISIS plot to bomb a soccer game in Germany in 2016.

While OSINT has proven to be an effective tool in the fight against terrorism, there are several challenges associated with using OSINT to combat terrorism.

One of the biggest challenges is the sheer volume of data that is available. There is a vast amount of information available on the internet, and it can be difficult to sift through all of it to find the relevant information. Additionally, much of the information that is available may be false or misleading, making it difficult to distinguish between accurate information and disinformation.

Another challenge is the need for specialized skills and expertise. Analyzing OSINT data requires specialized skills in data analysis, data visualization, and pattern recognition. Additionally, analysts need to be familiar with the various tools and platforms used to collect and analyze OSINT data.

This is a huge challenge for our LEAs currently, though there have recently been laudable efforts by international donors to buttress Pakistan’s capacity to counter terrorism through OSINT by providing capacity bidding trainings to police officers. However, much more needs to be done.

Finally, there are legal and ethical issues associated with the use of OSINT to combat terrorism. There are concerns that the use of OSINT may infringe on individual privacy rights or lead to false accusations. Additionally, there are concerns that the use of OSINT may be used to target innocent individuals or groups based on their race, ethnicity, or religion. In Pakistan’s milieu, it could also be potentially used for political victimization,

There are several common OSINT tools used by police which range from the commonly known google search engine to social media platforms, and various online databases available for accessing public records, such as property records, criminal records, and court records.

Then there are popular tools like Maltego being commonly used for OSINT investigations that allows users to visualize and analyze relationships between different pieces of information, such as social media profiles, email addresses, and IP addresses.

There are also alternate search engines like Shodan which is a search engine for internet-connected devices, which can be used to gather information about vulnerabilities or potential targets. The list of ever emerging OSINT tools is seemingly endless.

While OSINT can be a valuable tool for investigating terrorism and crime, there are some limitations to its effectiveness. OSINT relies on publicly available information, which may not always be complete or accurate. This can lead to incorrect assumptions or conclusions, which can hinder investigations.

Publicly available information may lack context, which can make it difficult to interpret. For example, a social media post may seem suspicious on its own, but when viewed in the context of the user’s other posts, it may not be significant.

Information found through OSINT may be biased or intentionally misleading. For example, terrorist groups may use social media to spread propaganda or mislead investigators.

Also, OSINT investigations must comply with legal and ethical guidelines, such as those governing privacy and data protection. Investigating individuals or groups without proper authorization or consent can lead to legal and ethical issues.

The biggest impediment for usage in Pakistan by LEAs might be that effective OSINT investigations require specialized skills and expertise in data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Without proper training and experience, investigators may miss important information or misinterpret data.

Similarly, for under-resourced police forces inadequately trained in technology, OSINT investigations can be time-consuming, particularly when dealing with large volumes of data. This can delay investigations and make it difficult to respond to emerging threats in a timely manner.

Overall, while OSINT can be a valuable tool for investigating terrorism and crime, it should be used in conjunction with other sources of information and should be conducted by trained professionals with the necessary skills and expertise.

Nevertheless, OSINT has become an important tool in the fight against terrorism. It allows intelligence agencies and law enforcement to collect and analyze information from publicly available sources, which can be used to identify potential threats, track the movements of terrorists, and disrupt terrorist operations.

However, there are several challenges associated with using OSINT to combat terrorism, including the sheer volume of data available, the need for specialized skills and expertise, and legal and ethical issues. Despite these challenges, OSINT will continue to be an important tool in the fight against terrorism.

The writer is a retired inspector general of police and ex-head of Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority. He tweets @Kkf50