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Open-Source Intelligence Meets Foresight - Using OSINT for better scanning and futures thinking


As a futurist and foresight practitioner, have you ever come across an intriguing weak signal but could not find out more about it? Have you wished you could go beyond the headlines, loudest voices, and trendy buzzwords to dig deeper and understand what’s really going on?

One way to improve your horizon scanning capabilities is by equipping yourself with Open-Source Intelligence (abbreviated as OSINT) tools. OSINT is well-suited for answering well-defined, specific questions in the present, while horizon scanning often aims for broad-stroke, big-picture questions about potential futures. This blog will demonstrate, through various examples, the significant potential for enhancing foresight practice with OSINT tools.


What is OSINT?

Broadly speaking, OSINT is finding out about anything that is "out there". A more formal definition, according to Rae Baker, author of Deep Dive: Exploring the Real-world Value of Open Source Intelligence, defines OSINT as “the production of intelligence through the collection and enrichment of publicly available information.”


OSINT was originally used by the U.S. intelligence community but has since expanded into a wide-ranging field used by many professions, such as investigative journalism, police work, business intelligence, and more. Here are some examples of typical OSINT use cases:

●       Identifying the geolocation based on an image.

●       Discovering non-obvious and hidden information about a person or an organization from a simple lead, such as a username or email.

●       Mapping out the connections of complex social networks.

 

These are merely glimpses into a vast domain. Discover more applications on the OSINT Framework. Up Next are a few examples that explore applying it to horizon scanning and foresight.


OSINT Tools Application in Signal Scanning:

Subject intelligence to identify the actual people behind change

Subject intelligence, also known as people intelligence, refers to gathering information about real people, which could include investigating people behind different usernames across various platforms. When discovering a specific signal of change, we can use OSINT to find the people creating those changes, and maybe discover what else they are working on.


Additionally, one may try to map out the social network of a particular change-maker or group. Because innovation does not happen in a vacuum, by identifying the creative people behind it, you may discover tangential changes that either facilitate or impede the focus issue.


Organization & institution/financial intelligence to monitor trends

Early signals are by definition early. It's critical for organizations not only to identify them but also to understand the timing of those changes. While being insensitive and underprepared for change can lead to missed opportunities and unanticipated challenges, being hypervigilant and paranoid about change is equally problematic.


One possible way to monitor change is by tracking the financial intelligence of major organizational and institutional players. As the old saying goes, "Follow the money", be it quantum computing, green tech, or global supply chains. Scanning the ebb and flow of financial investment changes may provide a timely signal of shaping of the futures.


Verify signals (combating misinformation/disinformation)

In the age of misinformation/disinformation, deep fakes, and noisy environments, probably one of the most common applications for OSINT is to help verify signals. One evaluation method used by the OSINT community is the NATO Admiralty Code. By evaluating both data credibility and source reliability, the analyst can represent the confidence level of given intelligence.


In addition, by investigating target signals from multiple sources and cross-referencing them, we can dramatically decrease the chance that the signals are fabricated or manipulated.


Gathering signals in fringe communities: deep web & dark web

The wildest changes (for the good and bad) often germinate on the fringes. Using OSINT tools to investigate the deep web and dark web may provide useful early insight into fringe groups that may shed light on alternative futures.


However, a word of caution: before venturing onto the dark web, it is highly advisable to upskill in cybersecurity, often referred to as operational security (OPSEC), in order to protect you from malicious actors.

 

Ethics

Lastly, the ethics of OSINT are multifaceted and important to consider. The bottom line for any OSINT investigation is that it involves only passively collecting publicly available data, rather than actively gathering confidential data (such as system infiltration and hacking). The second issue concerns privacy. Just because something is publicly available, like a social media post, doesn’t mean it can’t be misused and violate privacy, especially when combining multiple sources during analysis. Besides abiding by privacy regulations like GDPR, it’s also important to balance the need to know, with respect for privacy. Finally, specifically for using OSINT tools for foresight and futures thinking, there is an additional moral responsibility since our work is not about what the world is today, but rather how it could be influencing our futures.

 

Conclusion

This blog is an attempt to bridge a dialogue between foresight and OSINT practices. It strives to provide a high-level introduction of OSINT for futurist communities and showcase several potential applications. In many cases, a single weak signal may not justify the return on investment of a full-on OSINT investigation. Nevertheless, as the examples presented above illustrate, there are many use cases where foresight practice may be enhanced by employing OSINT tools.


I hope this serves as an invitation for you to consider applying OSINT in our work. What other ways could you use it to work towards a better future?

 

 Reference

  • Baker, R., & Hoffman, M. (2023). Deep Dive: Exploring the real-world value of Open Source Intelligence  (pp. 3). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 

  • OSINT Framework https://osintframework.com

  • NATO AJP-2.1 Source Reliability and Information Credibility Scales


© Wensupu Yang, 2024




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