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What OSINT Essentials is... and what it isn't

(Originally posted on Medium)

Let me tell you a secret.

I’m not altogether happy with calling my website “OSINT Essentials”. It was, to an extent, a piece of semantic trickery — but then again, most headlines and titles are.

The site arose from workshops and talks I’ve been privileged to deliver all over the world. I thought it would be useful to have links to the most useful — and user-friendly — free tools and services that I advise people to employ in investigating online content and information.

Tools alone, however, do not equal OSINT. Simply having them at your disposal doesn’t mean you’re going to duplicate the output of the likes of the New York Times, Bellingcat, or Storyful.

That said, given the deluge of propaganda, fakes and other assorted bullshit we’re subjected to on an hourly basis, it’s crucial that as many people as possible cultivate the mindset, and the basic abilities, to be more discerning about what they consume — our current diet is steadily destroying us.

With this in mind, it makes sense to try to make the field as approachable as possible. Free tools and simple practices are one way of encouraging this. Not everyone’s going to become an online super-sleuth, or uncover war crimes — though some will — but hopefully such an entry point makes it less intimidating and can provide the first steps in a journey toward a healthier understanding of news and other information.

As for that title — OSINT Essentials — it’s true that the site touches only on the surface of what many experts in the field would define as OSINT. This is deliberate, as a strong understanding of a small number of tools and principles will take the novice a long way, without the distractions of endless rabbit holes to get lost in.

It is, of course, an entry point. Many may decide to go much further and develop far more complex skills — and there are plenty of excellent resources out there to allow them to do that. But, to invoke the Pareto principle, the vast majority of what you achieve will almost certainly be possible with a small subset of these practices, when used with intelligence, imagination and tenacity. In a recent episode of the excellent OSINT Curious webcast, investigator Steve Harris spoke of Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins referring to using “Google, Google Street View, Google Earth and Google Maps for 90 percent” of an investigation he had just outlined.

And that semantic trickery I referred to? I often used to describe the workshops as teaching “OSINT basics”. But you find out pretty quickly that a lot of people don’t like to think they need help with the basics. On more than one occasion where we held the same sessions on consecutive days, managers told me staff members who had initially decided it wasn’t worth their while quietly slipped in on day two after hearing the feedback from their colleagues.

Thus I settled on “Essentials” to avoid the preconception that we were going to be teaching people their ABCs. The same principle held with naming the website. At the end of the day, my aim is to get this knowledge to as many people as possible — and if that involves sugar-coating the pill slightly, then so be it.


Title image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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