Generation Z, Generation Alpha and so on… The perceptions of those born in a digital world are changing the way we do things, even in intelligence and research.

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has come a long way since its inception. What initially started as a practice of collecting and analyzing information from publicly available sources has now evolved into a more complex and dynamic field with the evolution of technology and the widespread use of social media platforms. Ushering in a new era of OSINT, social media intelligence (SOCMINT) has gained prominence as a powerful subdiscipline for intelligence gathering, and it is set to define the next generation of OSINT. 

From the unique perspectives of high school criminology teacher, Chris Kemp, and insights from a recent symposium on open-source, SOCMINT and national security, let’s explore how the next generation of OSINT practitioners and data will redefine OSINT:

The birth of SOCMINT

The roots of OSINT can be traced back to traditional intelligence-gathering techniques, such as human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT), used by intelligence agencies and military organizations for decades. OSINT originally depended on gathering information from public sources such as newspapers and radio broadcasts. With the advent of the internet and the proliferation of digital information, OSINT has evolved into a distinct discipline that focuses on collecting and analyzing information from publicly available sources.

Over the years, OSINT has been used in various industries beyond the intelligence community (IC), including law enforcement, national security, corporate intelligence and journalism. OSINT has proved to be a valuable tool in obtaining information, uncovering hidden insights, and supporting decision-making processes. Because OSINT is freely and publicly available it has cost less to collect than other forms of intelligence, has lower personnel risk, and is a lot less work to obtain. OSINT has been widely utilized for threat assessment, competitive analysis and media monitoring, among other purposes.

*Cue the introduction of SOCMINT*

SOCMINT is reshaping the landscape of OSINT by offering new opportunities and challenges for practitioners and data analysts. Social media platforms have become a treasure trove of information, with billions of people around the world sharing their thoughts, opinions, experiences and personal details online. This wealth of user-generated content presents immense potential for gathering intelligence, as it provides real-time insights into people's behaviors, preferences and activities. SOCMINT has given analysts the ability to track social movements, monitor public sentiment, identify potential threats and investigate individuals or organizations. These outputs of SOCMINT have become an invaluable source of information for various intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, and private organizations.

SOCMINT is also transforming the way practitioners and data analysts approach OSINT. The traditional methods of information collection, such as manual searches and data scraping, are no longer sufficient in the era of social media. Practitioners need to adapt to the dynamic and fast-paced nature of social media platforms, where information spreads rapidly and trends change quickly. Collectors need to develop new skills and techniques to effectively collect, analyze and interpret social media data, which can be unstructured and vast in volume. This includes leveraging automated collection, advanced analytics, natural language processing, machine learning, and other technologies to uncover insights from the explosive volume of social media data and generate actionable intelligence.

Generational divide: “digital natives" advantage and online behavior consequences

As SOCMINT becomes more prevalent, so too does the generational divide among OSINT practitioners. The youngest adult generation, who Kemp refers to as "digital natives," who have grown up in the digital age, have an inherent advantage in navigating social media platforms and online spaces. These "digital natives" have a natural understanding of social media, its language, culture and nuances, and they can optimize social media data for intelligence gathering. In a NeedleStack episode, high school criminology teacher, Chris Kemp, recalls moments where has been “blown away” by some of his students' investigations, including the time a student geolocated the house where a famous murder occurred.

Kemp has not been the only OSINT specialist to bring attention to the younger generation’s inherent digital knowledge. NeedleStack producer Shannon Ragan also shared her experience with the topic at the recent Symposium on Open Source, Social Media and National Security. Panels highlighted the large part that the internet and social media play in younger people’s lives and how their perceptions of communication and privacy are different than other age groups. Discussions also pointed out how easy it is for younger people to adapt to newer social media platforms and technology due to their experience.

Although the current younger generations have this immediate and ongoing experience with the internet that tends to make it more difficult to fall victim to the internet than some adults, there is also a downside to their advantage, according to Kemp. The online behavior of "digital natives" can come back to haunt them, especially when seeking employment or navigating professional environments. Social media posts, photos and comments can leave a digital footprint that can be easily accessible to potential employers, colleagues or clients. Inappropriate or unprofessional online behavior can have negative consequences, including reputational damage, loss of job opportunities and even legal repercussions. A post from years before can come back to haunt a practitioner trying to break into the IC and keep them from obtaining proper clearance. Therefore, it is crucial for practitioners, especially the younger generation, to be mindful of their online presence and consider the potential impact of their online behavior on their professional lives.

NeedleStack producers, Shannon Ragan and Aubrey Byron discuss the potential for vulnerabilities in social media that could have dangerous consequences outside of personal lives.

Tips for SOCMINT Practitioners

As SOCMINT continues to gain prominence in the field of OSINT, practitioners and data analysts need to be equipped with the right skills and strategies to effectively collect, analyze and interpret social media data. Here are some tips for practitioners and data analysts:

  1. Stay up to date with social media platforms: Social media platforms are constantly evolving, with new features, algorithms, and privacy settings. It is essential to stay updated with the changes and understand how they may affect data collection and analysis. Check out S1E8 OSINT in law enforcement to learn more about ethical and legal recommendations for OSINT
  2. Verify information: Social media is prone to misinformation, fake news and hoaxes. It is crucial to verify the authenticity and accuracy of the information collected from social media sources before drawing conclusions or making decisions based on the information.
  3. Maintain objectivity: It is important to maintain objectivity and avoid bias while collecting and analyzing social media data. Be aware of your own biases and ensure that your analysis is based on facts and evidence rather than personal opinions or assumptions.
  4. Be mindful of online behavior: As a practitioner of SOCMINT, it is important to be mindful of your online behavior. Avoid engaging in unprofessional or inappropriate behavior on social media platforms, as it can have consequences on your professional reputation and credibility.
  5. Enhance Analytical Skills: Strong analytical skills are crucial for effective SOCMINT. Develop expertise in data analysis, data visualization and other analytical techniques to effectively interpret social media data and derive meaningful insights.
  6. Practice operational security (OPSEC): Operational security, or OPSEC, is critical in the field of OSINT. Be mindful of security practices to protect yourself, your data and your sources from potential threats or breaches.
  7. Collaborate and share knowledge: OSINT is a constantly evolving field, and practitioners can benefit from collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Engage in communities of practice, participate in forums and collaborate with fellow practitioners to enhance your skills and stay updated with the latest trends and techniques in SOCMINT.
  8. Continuously learn and adapt: The field of SOCMINT is dynamic and constantly evolving. Stay curious, continuously learn and adapt your techniques and strategies to stay relevant and effective in the ever-changing landscape of social media intelligence.

Social media intelligence (SOCMINT) is redefining the landscape of open-source intelligence (OSINT) and is set to define the next generation of OSINT practitioners and data analysts. With the immense potential of social media platforms as a source of intelligence, practitioners need to adapt to the dynamic nature of social media, develop new skills and techniques, and ensure responsible and ethical use of social media data. By staying updated, enhancing analytical skills, maintaining professional ethics and being vigilant of limitations, practitioners can effectively leverage SOCMINT for intelligence gathering and stay ahead in the rapidly evolving field of OSINT.

Find Chris Kemp’s full interview, the Symposium episode and other episodes of NeedleStack or subscribe to the show to get episodes delivered straight to your inbox.

Conducting SOCMINT and Need to stay anonymous?

If you're searching for information or people online, you also need to be aware of the risks that come with that research. Your unique browser settings and digital fingerprint could be following you down the trail of breadcrumbs and leaving a path for someone to trace your research back to you. Many OSINT researchers rely on managed attribution to protect their identity, company and research. Plus a full-service tool like Silo for Research can help automate menial tasks so you can focus on the creative problem-solving aspects of collection and analysis.

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