Are Open Source Investigators Multiplying Like Star Trek Tribbles?

October 13, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_t[2]Note: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

The idea of using the Internet to solve crimes is not a new idea. I learned about “open source” in 1981 when I worked in the online unit of the Courier Journal & Louisville Times Co. A fellow named Robert David Steele contacted me. He wanted to meet me when I was in Washington, DC. My recollection is that he showed up in a quasi-military outfit and preceded to explain that commercial online information was important to intelligence professionals. He wanted free access to our databases, and I politely explained that access was available via online timesharing services and from specialized vendors. He was not happy, but eventually we became tolerant of one another and ended up working on a number of interesting projects. Now open source information or OSINT is the go-to method for conducting research, investigations, gathering intelligence, and identifying persons of interest.

10 10 sherlock holmes

An OSINT investigator tracks down with OSINT geo tools the animal suspected of eating a knowledge worker’s flowers. Thanks, MidJourney. Close to Sherlock, but not on the money.

Until the surprise attack on Israel, it seemed as if open source or OSINT could work wonders. It didn’t, and (spoiler alert) it cannot. OSINT is one source of actionable information. Steele and I collaborated on numerous presentations and used this diagram to explain where OSINT fit into the world of professional information gatherers:


Open source is one pillar of the intelligence infrastructure. The keystone of OSINT is the staff, the management method, the techniques used to fuse and analyze source information, and presenting it in a way that makes sense to others.

I mention this because I read “The Disturbing Rise of Amateur Internet Detectives.” Please, consult the original to get a feel for the point of view of the author and the implicit endorsement of Netflix programming.

However, I want to highlight one passage from the article:

What’s the future of web sleuthing? It’s clear amateur online detectives are to stay. The depths of the internet can encourage our worst instincts – but also, as these series prove, our best, too. The trend for programs celebrating these sleuths, though, is harder to welcome. It’s difficult to avoid the sense that they amplify the messy, fractious instincts of the online world, and make sleuths reluctant celebrities. Dragging them into the limelight can misrepresent their work, doing a disservice to their peculiar talents and experiences. Still, there is an undeniable pull to the world of online sleuthing. We can expect far more coverage of that murky empire.

What is interesting to me is that OSINT has moved from an almost unknown activity to the mainstream. Who would have anticipated TV shows about online investigations. Even more surprising is the number of people who have adopted the method as an avocation. Others have set up businesses because the founder is an expert in OSINT. Amazing or shocking? I have not decided.

I have formulated several observations; these are:

  1. Determining what is important and then verifying the accuracy of the information are different skills from doing Google searches or using an OSINT toolkit
  2. Machine-generated content can degrade the accuracy of some of the most sophisticated OSINT intelligence systems. The surprise attack on Israel is a grim reminder of the limitations of highly sophisticated, multi-language, multi-source systems
  3. Gathering intelligence is not an activity conducted without care, careful consideration, and a keen awareness of the cognitive blind spots that each human possesses.

Net net: Pursuing a career is OSINT is probably a better choice than trying to become an influencer on TikTok.

Stephen E Arnold, October 13, 2023


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