The emerging role of AI in open source intelligence

Machine Learning


July 3, 2024Hacker NewsOSINT / Artificial Intelligence

Open Source Intelligence

Recently, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a new strategy for open source intelligence (OSINT), calling OSINT the “INT of the first resort.” Public and private sector organizations are recognizing the value this field can provide, but they are also finding that the recent exponential growth of digital data has overwhelmed many of the traditional OSINT techniques. Thankfully, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are beginning to transform the future of intelligence collection and analysis.

What is Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)?

Open source intelligence is the collection and analysis of information from publicly available sources. These sources include traditional media, social media platforms, academic publications, government reports, and other publicly available data. A key characteristic of OSINT is that it does not involve covert information gathering methods such as human intelligence or social engineering. If you had access to data when you worked for the U.S. government, but no longer have access to it as a private citizen, it is not OSINT.

Historically, OSINT has been a labor-intensive process involving several key steps.

  1. Identifying the source: The analyst determines which public sources may contain relevant information.
  2. Data collection: Information is often collected from these sources through manual searches and web scraping tools.
  3. Data Processing: The information collected is organized and structured for analysis.
  4. analysis: Skilled analysts examine data to identify patterns, trends, and insights.
  5. report: The findings are compiled into a report to help decision makers make more informed decisions.

This approach is effective but limited by the sheer volume of information available. It's difficult for human analysts to process it all manually, and valuable insights can be hidden in complex patterns that are hard for humans to detect. This is where AI/ML can offer significant benefits in how information is collected, processed, and analyzed. This allows human analysts to focus on what they are uniquely qualified to do, like providing context. As a side benefit, this shift often improves morale, as humans spend less time on routine processing tasks and more time analyzing and reviewing information.

Tasks where AI/ML can provide immediate benefits include:

  • Processing huge amounts of data: AI systems can process and analyze vast amounts of data at speeds far beyond human capabilities, allowing OSINT practitioners to act on findings with much greater scope than ever before.
  • Real-time analytics: In today's digital world, the amount of information flowing is staggering. AI-powered OSINT tools monitor and analyze data streams in real time, providing up-to-date information to help you respond quickly to new situations.
  • Multilingual and multimodal analysis: AI can break down language barriers by translating and analyzing content in multiple languages ​​simultaneously. Additionally, it can process a variety of data types, including text, images, audio, and video, in an integrated manner, providing a more comprehensive intelligence picture. Many of these capabilities, such as OpenAI's Whisper, can be used offline, eliminating operational security (OPSEC) concerns.
  • Predictive analytics: By analyzing historical data and current trends, AI can predict future events and actions, adding a proactive dimension to OSINT.
  • Automate routine tasks: AI helps automate many time-consuming aspects of OSINT, such as data collection and initial filtering, allowing human analysts to focus on higher level analysis and decision-making. Things that were previously very difficult, if not impossible to implement, such as accurate sentiment analysis, can now be done with ease.

SANS Network Security’s SEC497 Hands-on OSINT and SEC587 Advanced OSINT courses provide students with hands-on experience leveraging these AI capabilities, not only improving productivity but also uncovering new possibilities.

While no technology is perfect and the potential impact of hallucinations must be considered before implementing AI, some of the key technologies currently utilized for OSINT include:

  1. Natural Language Processing (NLP): NLP enables machines to understand, interpret, and generate human language. In OSINT, NLP is important for:
    • Sentiment analysis of social media posts
    • Entity recognition to identify people, organizations, and places in text
    • Topic modeling for classifying large amounts of text data
    • Machine translation for multilingual information gathering
  2. Computer Vision: This technology allows machines to interpret and analyze visual information. In OSINT, computer vision is used to:
    • Face recognition in images and videos
    • Compare faces to identify if the same person appears in multiple images
    • Detecting objects in an image
    • Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to extract text from images
    • Scene Understanding in Video
  3. Machine Learning and Data Mining: How many times have you heard the saying, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”? Machine learning embodies this concept as it allows systems to learn from data and improve their performance over time. In OSINT, it is used to:
    • Predictive analytics to forecast trends and events
    • Anomaly detection to identify unusual patterns or behavior
    • Clustering and classifying data for easier analysis
    • Network analysis to understand relationships between entities

I've been working with OSINT for almost 20 years, and with new developments happening in the field literally every day, this is the most dynamic and exciting time ever. If you'll join me at Network Security in Las Vegas this September, I look forward to sharing how this capability improves your effectiveness and efficiency today, as well as what to expect in the future.

Not yet registered with SANS Network Security? Check out this page to see all the information the store has to offer.

Notes: This article was expertly written by Matt Edmondson, SANS Principal Instructor and Principal at Argelius Labs, who has 10 years of professional OSINT experience.

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