Cyber Investigators: Feast, Famine, or Poisoned Data in 2023

January 11, 2023

At this moment in time, the hottest topic among some cyber investigators is open source intelligence or OSINT. In 2022, the number of free and for-fee OSINT tools and training sessions grew significantly. Plus, each law enforcement and intelligence conference I attended in 2022 was awash with OSINT experts, exhibitors, and investigators eager to learn about useful sites, Web and command line techniques, and intelware solutions combining OSINT information with smart software. I anticipate that 2023 will be a bumper year for DYOR or do your own research. No collegial team required, just a Telegram group or a Twitter post with comments. The Ukraine-Russia conflict has become the touchstone for the importance of OSINT.

Over pizza, my team and I have been talking about how the OSINT “revolution” will unwind in 2023. On the benefit side of the cyber investigative ledger, OSINT is going to become even more important. After 30 years in the background, OSINT has become the next big thing for investigators, intelligence professionals, entrepreneurs, and Beltway bandits. Systems developed in the US, Israel, and other countries continue to bundle sophisticated analytics plus content. The approach is to migrate basic investigative processes into workflows. A button click automates certain tasks. Some of the solutions have proven themselves to be controversial. Voyager Lab and the Los Angeles Police Department generated attention in late 2021. The Brennan Center released a number of once-confidential documents revealing the capabilities of a modern intelware system. Many intelware vendors have regrouped and appear to be ready to returned to aggressive marketing of their systems, its built-in data, and smart software. These tools are essential for certain types of investigations whether in US agencies like Homeland Security or in financial crime investigations at FINCEN. Even state and city entities have embraced the mantra of better, faster, easier, and, in some cases, cheaper investigations.

Another development in 2023 will be more tension between skilled human investigators and increasingly smarter software. The bean counters (accountants) see intelware as a way to reduce the need for headcount (full time equivalents) and up the amount of smart software and OSINT information. Investigators will face an increase in cyber crime. Some involved in budgeting will emphasize smart software instead of human officers. The crypto imbroglio is just one facet of the factors empowering online criminal behavior. Some believe that the Dark Web, CSAM, and contraband have faded from the scene. That’s a false idea. In the last year or so, what my team and I call the “shadow Web” has become a new, robust, yet hard-to-penetrate infrastructure for cyber crime. Investigators now face an environment into which a digital Miracle-Gro has been injected. Its components are crypto, encryption, and specialized software that moves Web sites from Internet host to Internet host in the click of a mouse. Chasing shadows is a task even the most recent intelware systems find difficult to accomplish.

However, my team and I believe that there is another downside for law enforcement and a major upside for bad actors. The wide availability of smart software capable of generating misinformation in the form of text, videos, and audio. Unfortunately today’s intelware is not yet able to flag and filter weaponized information in real time or in a reliable way. OSINT advocates and marketers unfamiliar with the technical challenges of ignoring “fake” information downplay the risk of weaponized or poisoned information. A smart software system ingesting masses of digital information can, at this time, learn from bogus data and, therefore, output misleading or incorrect recommendations. In 2023, poisoned data continue to derail many intelware systems as well as traditional investigations when insufficient staff are available to determine provenance and accuracy. Our research has identified 10 widely-used mathematical procedures particularly sensitive to bogus information. Few want to discuss these out-of-sight sinkholes in public forums. Hopefully the reluctance to talks about OSINT blindspots will fade in 2023.

The feast? Smart software. Masses of information.

The famine? Funds to expand the hiring of full time (not part time) investigators and the money needed to equip these professionals with high-value, timely instruction about tools, sources, pitfalls, and methods for verification of data.

The poison? The ChatGPT and related tools which can make anyone with basic scripting expertise into a volcano of misinformation.

Let me suggest four steps to begin to deal with the feast, famine, and poison challenges?

First, individuals, trade groups, and companies marketing intelware to law enforcement and intelligence entities stick to the facts about their systems. The flowery language and the truth-stretching lingo must be decreased. Why do intelware vendors experience brutal churn among licensees? The distance between the reality of the system and the assertions made to sell the system.

Second, procurement processes and procurement professionals must become advocates for reform. Vendors often provide “free” trials and then work to get “on the budget.” The present procurement methods can lead to wasted time, money, and contracting missteps. Outside-the-box ideas like a software sandbox require consideration. (If you want to know more about this, message me.)

Third, consulting firms which are often quick to offer higher salaries to cyber investigators need to evaluate the impact of their actions on investigative units. There is no regulatory authority monitoring the behavior of these firms. The Wild West of cyber investigator poaching hampers some investigations. Legislation perhaps? More attention from the Federal Trade Commission maybe? Putting the needs of the investigators ahead of the needs of the partners in the consulting firms?

Fourth, a stepped up recruitment effort is needed to attract investigators to the agencies engaged in dealing with cyber crime. In my years of work for the US government and related entities, I learned that government units are not very good at identifying, enlisting, and retaining talent. This is an administrative function that requires more attention from individuals with senior administrative responsibilities. Perhaps 2023 will generate some progress in this core personnel function.

Don’t get me wrong. I am optimistic about smart software. I believe techniques to identify and filter weaponized information can be enhanced and improved. I am confident that forward leaning professionals in government agencies can have a meaningful impact on institutionalized procedures and methods associated with fighting cyber crime.

My team and I are committed to conducting research and sharing our insights with law enforcement and intelligence professionals in 2023. My hope is that others will adopt a similar “give back” and “pay it forward” approach in 2023 in the midst of feasts, famines, and poisoned data.

Thank you for reading. — Stephen E Arnold, January 11, 2023


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