ShadowDragon Commentary: OSINT vs Classified Secrets

In a recent opinion piece for The Cipher Brief, Gregory Sims, former CIA Clandestine Service for over thirty years, including multiple field tours as Chief and Deputy Chief of CIA stations, shared his views on the evolving role of open source intelligence (OSINT) in a world filled with secrets.  

A few quotes from that article particularly resonate with me and the work we are doing at ShadowDragon:

  • “For democracies, OSINT’s coming of age is cause for celebration because of the tremendous competitive advantage it offers free societies in their struggle against the despotic regimes and violent movements that threaten us. Yes, police states also skillfully use many of OSINT’s new tools, but democracies are far better equipped to make best use of them because our less-fettered information flows and dynamic creative populations better wire us to dominate in this domain. Openness is hardly a strong suit of dictatorships.” 
  • “It is also important to recognize that even if U.S OSINT efforts are gathered into a new and independent agency, our secret intelligence organizations will need to retain a robust organic OSINT capability because of OSINT’s vital contributions to secret intelligence operations and analysis. But these are all solvable problems that do not justify holding up the progress of the promising OSINT revolution. Going big on OSINT, including liberating it from the secret world, will be a big win for the good guys.” 

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I also wholeheartedly believe that target-centric OSINT can help illuminate and find edge cases for those dedicated to the more secret/HUMINT (human intelligence) work. Unique OSINT sources and datasets can make all the difference in solving all kinds of investigations.  

Later in the article, Sims also calls OSINT a “craft”. I couldn't agree more with this language. OSINT is not just the collection of publicly available information (PAI) or other open source materials. There is a methodology behind the craft of leveraging OSINT for modern investigations that must not be overlooked. 

My personal threshold for measuring success when I first started using OSINT for investigations was to achieve 60% success/augmentation of an investigation. Even in the very first case that I used OSINT in solving one particular investigation, I also used: memory forensics, disk forensics, network forensics, and reverse engineering... and then hired contractors to perform surveillance to verify the conclusions I thought had been close to 80% accurate. (Verification is key) 

Is OSINT a silver bullet? No, but it helps with edge cases and provides different perspectives to offer additional opportunities and outcomes. 

As Sims points out, OSINT deserves its own seat at the table as a non-secret member of our Intelligence Community. That kind of evolution would enable secret intelligence services like the CIA to focus on the “smaller but no less critical subset of our intelligence problems and on cultivating the complex, disciplined tradecraft and organizational culture needed to effectively practice these highly specialized arts.”  

Personally, if asked, I would love to head up the OSINT Intelligence Agency if it were to occur.  

Bottom line - the more you know, the luckier you become. OSINT in many cases gives you the small edge you need. If you aren’t using OSINT to ask questions about what you are investigating, there is a fair chance that you may be missing a few clues that may change your perspective.  

For more information about OSINT solutions powered by ShadowDragon, please get in touch. You can also learn more about our views on OSINT for good and creating tools that are transparent and trustworthy on our Trust Center. 

Daniel Clemens

Daniel Clemens

Daniel Clemens is the founder and CEO of both ShadowDragon and Packet Ninjas, a niche cybersecurity consulting and services company.

With extensive experience in defensive and offensive security, Daniel has been a quiet trailblazer in digital intel-gathering long before cyber intelligence became a discipline. More than a decade ago he was inventing and applying his own intelligence tools in support of companies and governments around the world facing urgent threats. Using this deep understanding of web technologies and the behaviors of cybercriminals, he has enhanced, updated and packaged these tools under ShadowDragon.

Daniel is a member of the Odonata Holdings, Inc.
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