Think about the thousands of artifacts and clues that a team of archeologists excavate and examine to construct a coherent narrative of past civilizations. Each artifact serves as a clue that provides a snippet of insight into how the people of that time lived. Digging up small artifacts in this matter is still being conducted today. Social media platforms such as Facebook use algorithms to analyze your interactions, likes, shares, and digital conversations to create a detailed profile of your interests and preferences. These digital artifacts are used to feed relevant ads to you.
What is OSINT?
In the same way that an archaeologist develops a hypothesis about historical events from unearthed artifacts or a social media platform creates inferences about your lifestyle using social data mining, there is another information gathering process that you may not be familiar with called Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). OSINT involves the systematic collection, analysis, and utilization of publicly available data to unearth potential threats and weaknesses in an organization’s digital infrastructure.
The premise of OSINT is simple. The more you know about your target, the higher the likelihood of successfully breaching its defenses. This is true whether you are an actual cyber threat actor, a red team member simulating attacks, or a penetration tester working to enhance security. OSINT is a form of digital reconnaissance one can passively perform to acquire intelligence without alerting the target, unlike other forms of intelligence that may involve confidential or classified sources or interact directly with the target.
OSINT Information Sources
The digital footprint left while browsing the web or engaging with social media is often underestimated. In reality, there is a vast array of publicly accessible information about organizations and their key players. This includes data from social media, news articles, press releases, records of public meetings, discussions on online forums, public code repositories, governmental publications, and even search engine results.
However, OSINT isn’t limited to textual information. A wealth of multimedia content is also available, encompassing videos, webinars, and recordings of public speeches by organizational representatives at conferences and other events. Think of the abundant content on platforms like YouTube and TikTok produced by various entities every month.
While aggregating all this public information is a complex endeavor, it isn’t necessarily labor-intensive. Modern data scraping technologies and AI tools are equipped to efficiently parse through these extensive data repositories, making the process of gathering and analyzing OSINT both swift and efficient for those with the right tools and skillsets.
How Public Information is Used by Attackers
Underestimating the vulnerability posed by your organization’s digital content could be a critical oversight. In today’s digital landscape, even seemingly harmless elements like GIF files are being exploited by threat actors to infiltrate systems through phishing or smishing tactics. For example, information shared by employees on social networks, as harmless as it may seem, can inadvertently reveal answers to security questions or hints about their passwords. Digitally recorded conversations among company executives might be manipulated for spear-phishing campaigns. These digital breadcrumbs are readily accessible, and threat actors often harvest publicly available information about their targets with the same ease as one might borrow books from a library.
Using OSINT for Enhanced Cyber Defense
If all this accessible information on your organization seems daunting, there is a silver lining. The same public information leveraged by threat actors is also accessible and legally available for cyber defense teams. These teams can collate these digital clues not only to understand what information about their organization is openly accessible and potentially exploitable but also to uncover sensitive data that might have inadvertently landed on the dark web due to data breaches or credential stuffing attacks.
Cybersecurity firms are now routinely deploying OSINT to scour through thousands of websites, forum posts, and dark web marketplaces. Besides conducting discovery for information readily available about a specific organization, OSINT plays a pivotal role in various other cybersecurity facets:
- Threat Intelligence Gathering: Threat intelligence is the bedrock of cybersecurity and OSINT is used to gather information about the current threat landscape such as new malware or phishing campaigns that are being used.
- Vulnerability Assessment: OSINT tools can help identify known vulnerabilities in enterprise software and hardware that could be exploited by a threat actor. This information is gathered from public databases like the National Vulnerability Database and other sources.
- Phishing Defense: A proactive defense is always best. By actively monitoring phishing websites, cataloging new domain registrations, and analyzing email patterns, cybersecurity companies can get ahead of the game and reduce the likelihood of a successful phishing attack on their organization.
- Social Engineering Defense: Social engineering attacks are effective because of the convincing nature of the attackers that implement them. By monitoring publicly available information that these players might use in an attack, organizations can increase awareness across their organizations and provide training guidance to reduce the effectiveness of such attacks.
OSINT is but one more component that should be utilized for a comprehensive defense-in-depth strategy. It enables organizations to stay ahead of threats by leveraging a wealth of publicly available information.
The Intricacies of OSINT
While the idea of gathering data from public sources sounds straightforward, OSINT demands a sophisticated blend of expertise and specialized tools to do it effectively. OSINT professionals are adept at handling the immense volume and intricacy of data and have advanced analytical skills to accurately decipher and contextualize information. They are proficient in using specialized tools and techniques that prove essential for thorough data analysis and management.
Equally important is the ethical and legal navigation in OSINT practices. Given that such data can be misused, professionals must adhere to stringent privacy laws and uphold ethical standards, a skill that comes with specialized training and experience. This expertise also enables them to sidestep common errors and misinterpretations that often beset those less experienced in the nuances of data handling in OSINT. In essence, the complexity of OSINT lies not just in data collection, but in the careful, skilled interpretation and legal and ethical use of that information.
The collection of cybersecurity information is often associated with a SIEM or MITRE ATT&CK Framework. While they provide critical pieces of the puzzle, they don’t provide a complete overview of the current threat landscape. In today’s world, where information is abundant, its application can lead to vastly different outcomes. The practice of assembling discrete pieces of information to form a coherent narrative has been practiced throughout the ages. OSINT represents a contemporary approach to this task, providing a crucial edge in potentially preventing significant cyberattacks that could otherwise inflict serious damage on your business.