When rebels shot down commercial passenger aircraft Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, amateur online sleuths used social media posts to pinpoint the perpetrators and even the missile system used in the attack.
More recently, at the start of the pandemic, a story broke of a US man hoarding sanitisers for price gouging. Though the article never gave his location, the photos it published contained geotag information, and his warehouse was quickly outed. And in 2022, a major credit card company didn't know it had been hacked until researchers discovered millions of stolen records on the dark web.
These are all examples of open-source intelligence. It's a trend that is changing cybersecurity, says Lior Arbel, co-founder of security SAAS provider, Encore, “Most security operations focus inwards on information only they should know about their environment and security measures. But cybercriminals cast a wider net for information. They also find publicly available information that they can use for attacks. More security teams are starting to do the same, using open-source intelligence to identify risks and reinforce security."
A leaf from spycraft
Open-source intelligence, or OSINT, is the practice of legally collecting public information for a specific intelligence requirement. The concept goes back at least as far as World War 2 when the Office of Strategic Services gathered newspapers, journals, radio broadcasts and more to gain an edge over Axis forces. In the 1980s, the US Pentagon coined the term, expanding its intelligence activities beyond covert information gathering.
As the internet and connectivity grew, so did OSINT opportunities and access. Today, amateur investigators, journalists, students, researchers, and hobbyists use OSINT through social media, forum posts, public chat groups and many more outlets. So do criminals – in particular, cybercriminals. They dig up OSINT to find weaknesses in targets, especially for social engineering.
“Criminals can build dossiers on targets by scraping social media information, forum posts, and any data that is open to public eyes," says Arbel. "For example, an executive posting online that he's going to his child's swimming competition. Criminals can use that to launch a phishing attack, such as an email disguised to look like it's from the swimming schedule but is designed to steal login credentials.”
OSINT is also becoming a major part of cybersecurity. As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu noted, you should always try to know what the enemy knows and know more than the enemy. If criminals use OSINT, so should cybersecurity practitioners — it's a valuable skill set and a growing career opportunity. Stepping into the shoes of would-be adversaries, security experts look for information on the internet – including the unindexed deep web and clandestine dark web – to find information that informs their security strategies.
These details can be about individuals, company information, or the systems they rely on. Probing public-facing parts of business systems can yield a wealth of information that, in the wrong hands, spells massive danger for an organisation.
OSINT for good
Leading security systems incorporate OSINT to identify security risks and design strategies that mitigate those problems. The most effective examples combine OSINT with other security practices, such as External Attack Surface Management (EASM) and Cyber Asset Attack Surface Management (CAASM).
EASM looks at internet-facing systems and assets – often unseen risks such as shadow IT (ungoverned technologies used by staff) – and CAASM probes existing data sources to find, validate and fix security controls. “Together, these approaches provide security teams with actionable intelligence to address the biggest threats to their companies,” says Arbel.
"Cybersecurity's challenge is finding multiple needles in a haystack while a criminal only has to find a few to create an attack. The combination of OSINT, EASM and CAASM creates a very detailed security-readiness view from inside and outside an organisation. But the real benefits start happening when you add automation and integration. Then you can generate good intelligence quickly and apply fixes automatically."
OSINT and these two disciplines are the hallmarks of modern security services. They help manage today's complex technology arenas, where applications, cloud services, remote access and multiple other factors make it much harder for security teams to identify and address risks. The most effective systems add agnosticism: integrating with existing security estates and data sources to provide more accurate assessment and problem discovery.
"Cybercriminals work against your time," says Arbel. “The longer it takes you to find a problem and fix it, the more opportunity they have to break in and hide their tracks. But modern security assessment and reporting platforms are radically reducing how long it takes to find and fix issues."
OSINT rapidly differentiates between effective security solutions and the sector's white elephants. Numerous security qualifications now incorporate OSINT training, and the sector even has an OSINT framework (https://osintframework.com/). Today's criminals learn a lot about their targets through open-source intelligence. But so can the good guys. With the right insights, they are fighting back.
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