What is OSINT?
Open-source intelligence is data gathered using publicly available information. Common sources include search engines, social media, public databases, business records and more. Anyone can freely access this data online.
OSINT is commonly used in many fields, including security, journalism, law enforcement, legal proceedings, and business and academic research. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why someone might access OSINT data. For instance, a business might use it to research different market demographics or trends.
Unfortunately, scammers can take advantage of it to build personalized phishing schemes. Open-source intelligence is free and easy to access, making it highly appealing for bad actors. Scammers and hackers may use additional sources to conduct OSINT research, particularly the dark web.
How phishing scams use OSINT data
Phishing works best when the scammer has plenty of information on their target. Today’s most common form of phishing involves sending text messages or emails containing links to malicious websites where the scammer can collect information from victims. Cybercriminals often attempt to access financial data or login credentials in these schemes.
Open-source intelligence is incredibly valuable to scammers. They can use it to access a wealth of detailed, personal information on virtually any person or organization they want to target. This paves the way for attacks and data breaches, which cost companies an average of $4.24 million. OSINT reconnaissance is even easier with the help of tools like web scrapers and AI. Plus, the dark web contains additional data that may not be legally available through other channels.
Scammers leverage all this information to build personalized phishing campaigns. They can replicate someone’s email style, identify a target’s friends and colleagues, determine likely message topics, and more. OSINT can effectively empower cybercriminals to impersonate whomever they want virtually.
This phishing strategy is more likely to trick victims than less research-intensive methods. People are more likely to open an email from a name they recognize than from some random address they’ve never seen before. The more personalized phishing is, the more effective it will be.
Who is most at risk from OSINT?
Open-source intelligence creates opportunities for incredibly personalized phishing scams, but it’s not a magic bullet for hackers. Analyzing OSINT data requires time and focus. The scammer must have a specific target to concentrate their search efforts on. As a result, OSINT isn’t necessarily helpful for mass phishing schemes.
There are two general groups of people most at risk: people in leadership roles and groups of co-workers at the same organization. Both types of targets require the hacker to research only one or two people.
For example, a scammer might use OSINT to research the vice president of a large company. In the process, they find examples of the executive’s emails and identify a group of people who work closely with them. The scammer can then send highly convincing phishing messages to the vice president and their co-workers.
This is an efficient strategy from a scammer’s perspective. They don’t need to know personal information about everyone, just the one connection they have in common. Therefore, the hacker can cast a wide net using a highly focused and effective set of free, publicly available information.
In situations like this, users must understand the red flags of a phishing message. Even the most convincing malicious email can contain hints that it is not legitimate. For instance, phishing emails often request personal information or come from an unusual domain. OSINT does not make these red flags go away.
Additionally, the time commitment to conduct OSINT research means scammers must be selective about whom they target. They’re likely to be pickier and stick to people who are most likely to have access to large sums of money or high-value data. The average person is not necessarily at a higher risk from phishing due to OSINT.
Can OSINT be beneficial?
Businesses, individuals, and security pros can leverage open-source intelligence in their favor to help defend against scammers. The same publicly available information cybercriminals abuse can also be used against them. Organizations and law enforcement can use OSINT to better understand their risks and potentially spot threats sooner.
In fact, INTERPOL uses social media monitoring to identify potential terrorist threats and groups. Investigators can stop threats of violence before anyone gets hurt by analyzing communications, publicly posted messages and suspicious content. This is a perfect example of using OSINT for good.
Any business or organization can leverage open-source intelligence to strengthen security. Information security departments can conduct OSINT research on their own organizations to determine what information is publicly available. Increasing visibility is a core part of addressing and minimizing vulnerabilities.
Similarly, OSINT data is valuable for understanding emerging security threats and patterns. Phishing has evolved and changed significantly over recent years and will continue to do so. Only through in-depth research can security teams stay informed of shifting trends in phishing and cybercrime at large. Businesses and organizations can use this information to maintain more up-to-date security protocols.
Finally, OSINT data can help develop security training programs. Organizations can use their own open-source intelligence to design phishing messages like what a real scammer might create. This makes phishing identification training realistic, leading to stronger employee preparedness.
Is OSINT a risk or a tool?
With all these factors in mind, should security pros consider open-source intelligence a risk or a tool? The answer is both. Phishing scammers are using this data to create more convincing malicious content. However, organizations can also use OSINT data against them. Many law enforcement organizations are already doing this.
Ultimately, the best way to minimize the risk of OSINT data is by increasing awareness of it and leveraging it in the service of stronger security measures.