OSINT 101: what is open source intelligence (OSINT)?
This is the first article of an explainer series about OSINT, its techniques, and how these can be applied in real-world investigations, especially in Afghanistan.
Social media, the internet, and the 24-hour news cycle have broadened our access to information – news is updated by the minute, and our questions are answered on Google in a matter of seconds. While ease of access to information has increased, distinguishing between accurate and false information can feel increasingly complex.
With millions around the world signed up to social media, the convenience of ‘share’ or ‘repost’ buttons means false claims can spread like wildfire, with images or videos frequently shared out of context. Verification and fact-checking are often neglected, however, leaving sites such as X (formerly Twitter) or Facebook fertile ground for misinformation.
In the last couple of years, the power of open source intelligence – known as OSINT – to collect and verify information has been recognised. King’s College London describes OSINT as “the collection and analysis of public domain information to draw intelligence conclusions.”
What exactly does this mean?
Collecting and analysing information is a task that many of us do without even realising, for example, when conducting a background check on a new employee, or researching an employer on LinkedIn.
Open source information may include photos or videos, audio recordings, written posts on social media, websites, news articles, and any other types of publicly accessible information. It may be sourced from search engines such as Google, social media platforms (Facebook, X [formerly Twitter], Instagram, Telegram...), the broader mass media, as well as public places and events.
The difference between a quick search on social media and intelligence gathering – in this case, through open source – is the analysis and verification of the data. As with any investigation, the main goal of an OSINT investigation is to answer a specific question or set of questions. In order to do that, analysts piece together fragments of information or evidence until they have a more complete “picture” of the incident or topic in question.
This usually requires pursuing vital questions such as what happened, who was involved, and when – as well as why – an incident took place. Sometimes, investigators will be able to build an understanding of associated events and may even be able to use the available visual evidence to reconstruct an incident. Techniques such as geolocation and chronolocation are used to pinpoint the location and point in time when a photograph or video was taken.
Let’s take the example of the BBC Africa Eye's Anatomy of a Killing investigation. In 2018, a brutal video emerged on social media. Footage showed two women and two young children led away at gunpoint by Cameroonian soldiers, before being blindfolded, forced to the ground, and shot 22 times. While the footage was originally declared “fake news” by the government of Cameroon, the BBC team’s forensic examination of the footage was able to prove the incident took place in a village in the far north of Cameroon and was even able to identify three of the soldiers responsible for pulling the trigger.
OSINT played a pivotal role in bringing the truth to light – allowing investigators to reconstruct events and reveal crucial details such as what happened, the locations where the incidents took place, the time period, and the perpetrators involved. Anatomy of a Killing also underlines the real-world impact such investigations can have: the investigation sparked international attention on the incident, with a Twitter thread explaining the story gaining millions of views. In 2020, four of the soldiers were sentenced to 10 years for their roles in the killings.
It’s important to remember that not all investigations will be this complete, however. The success of any investigation relies on there being sufficient evidence available – for example, some aspects may remain unclear or unverifiable due to a lack of open source evidence. In countries such as Afghanistan, where media restrictions and self-censorship are widespread, claims of human rights abuses surface daily, but visual evidence is often limited.
In a nutshell, when talking about OSINT, we usually refer to a process that involves the collection, preservation, analysis, and verification of information:
Who conducts OSINT investigations?
Even though ‘intelligence’ might remind us of national and international security, many professionals use OSINT and its techniques as a means to find and verify information.
While enthusiasts have long gathered on internet forums and group chats to share and discuss their findings, newsrooms around the world are finally catching on, with major outlets establishing desks dedicated entirely to open source monitoring, fact-checking or data journalism.
Remote investigation is now a reality: OSINT allows analysts and journalists access to countries or regions otherwise off-limits to them – without even leaving their desks. Academic institutes, as well as various organisations and foundations, have also been investing in new programmes and grants devoted to OSINT, as well as monitoring or debunking dis- and misinformation.
Why is it important?
OSINT has, perhaps, become best known for its use in investigating and uncovering a range of human rights abuses and government misconduct, from mapping Russia’s war on Ukraine to uncovering China’s Uighur internment camps. Our own investigation into evidence of prisoner executions in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley in September 2022 was able to conclusively link one group of Taliban fighters to the execution of ten men in the Dara district area.
With a reliance on accuracy and evidence and a fully transparent methodology, OSINT investigations such as those mentioned above have several uses, from uncovering human rights abuses to debunking mis- and disinformation and supporting accountability mechanisms. In fact, an OSINT analyst must learn not only the techniques, but also how to store data, and the ethical and safety considerations to ensure the data is admissible if it is ever used in a court of law.
In upcoming articles, we will delve deeper into the OSINT world, discussing other important concepts such as the information environment, mis- and disinformation, as well as a detailed overview of the OSINT process: from data collection to the final report. These explainers will also include case studies on the practical uses of OSINT, with a focus on Afghanistan.
In short, OSINT is the collection, analysis, and verification of public domain information to draw intelligence conclusions that can be used to investigate human rights violations, debunk mis- or disinformation and, where possible, hold perpetrators accountable.
For more information on our workflow and processes, read our in-depth methodology, here.