One of the earliest victims in the extensive disruption of the digital era was undoubtedly journalism. As a result, it is very easy to paint a very bleak view on the direction of investigative journalism, and the media industry in general. Trends such as major publications increasingly struggling to make ends meet in the online era, the quality of journalists going down as salaries suffer real decline and press freedom going the wrong way throughout much of the world, are evident everywhere and have caused serious pain to the industry.
However in many ways the rise of technology and democratisation created by the Internet has also spawned unprecedented opportunity. The sheer wealth of information and evidence out there – Social Media, blogs, digital satellite images and photographs – provide a whole swath of information which when properly synthesised can underpin effective decision-making for managers and policymaking. Moreover such Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) provides rigour and a verifiable methodology for deeper analytical study.
In today’s age high quality investigative work that can be done by people with nothing more than a laptop and an investigative mind. You no longer need to work at the CIA or FBI in order to have access to some of the best tools. One of the best examples out there is “Brown Moses”, aka Eliot Higgins. Through his citizen journalism platform Bellingcat, Brown Moses and his international team of like-minded contributors use satellite images, digital detective work and social media to do ground breaking work and provide actionable intelligence which would be extremely useful for the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Some of their best work has proven that Ukrainian territory was being shelled from Russia, China actively reclaiming land in the South China Sea and that the ISIS execution of James Foley took place around Raqqah, its stronghold in North East Syria. Incredibly the majority of Brown Moses’s work was done out of his flat in Leicester, UK, while looking after his baby child. Just like self-publishing is revolutionising the book writing industry, so it is doing for citizen journalism.
So what does this trend mean for the risk consulting industry?
Well firstly, it shows above all what a skill OSINT is becoming. I remember early in my risk consulting career, clients saying to me that OSINT was a “glorified Google search”. This today cannot be further from the truth. OSINT in the digital era is increasingly more important than Human Source Intelligence (HUMINT) for the intelligence industry. The exponential growth of digital information means that it is increasingly a skill to synthesise what is out there to create real actionable intelligence. Not only does OSINT provide the best leads, it allows for the most time and cost effective ways of utilising human sources, which add veracity to the best leads from the public sphere. The fact that the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) comes 80% form Open Source material and only 20% from HUMINT and Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) used to corroborate what is found.
The era of Big Data make high quality OSINT intelligence work extremely difficult, but the results can be huge for clients. I have seen multi-million dollar asset searches cracked through leads found on Facebook and corroborating information through the corporate records. The skills in OSINT in the era of Big Data is to be able to find the specific pieces of information, the needle in the haystack. The skill is not only where to look (again increasingly difficult) with knowing how to look, and also having the patience to look for patterns, as shown by researchers like Brown Moses.
The next major skill a risk consulting firm must provide is getting behind the Open Source, and to provide rigorous analysis of it, so that a client can really know what it means. In the CEE region, we have increasingly seen figures tainted by major red flags. However once you get to the source of the articles, it suddenly become apparent that they all come from one or two writers, and they are getting paid off to write derogatory information about that individual. Deeper analysis showed that the target of the investigation was in fact someone you could do business with.
However on the flip side, clients need to be aware of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), and the effect this has on OSINT. There is increasingly big money being thrown at “online reputation management”, where high profile people are carefully managing what is – and what isn’t – available online. This means that red flag information is increasingly being removed from not only the Internet, but also from archives of even the more reputable papers around the world.
The Risk consulting industry will break off into two paths: commoditised intell giving the basic overview of what is out there or a deeper intelligence report, where the raw data collection is just the start of the process. Rather than just getting a “data dump” (sometimes leaving the client more confused than he was before), the second option involves synthesising and analysis giving strategic direction to the client. Of course the trade off is that the second option is increased price and cost in delivering such a product.
Clients should be aware of how the industry is evolving, and decide which of these two options fits their investigative needs.
CEECG provides OSINT training workshops for clients. We typically train compliance, legal or transaction teams on how best to do research which makes them more productive and effective. Get in touch if you would like to learn more.