Updated: Apr 18, 2020
With the outbreak of coronavirus and continued geo-political instability, it is often a key requirement for analysts and security personnel to conduct detailed area assessments for a number of reasons. This can include pre-deployment of staff to dangerous areas, travel activities of executives to unknown places, national awareness of what is happening in other parts of the world, or general curiosity. Regardless of the use-case, OSINT is often the best method to rapidly assess an area because a large portion of "ground truths" come from the activity of people in the area and their data and insights made accessible through the internet. The challenge is collating and refining data sources that are accurate, relevant and timely.
This post will focus on how we can take the plethora of sources and concepts and tie them into a succinct report that can be beneficial for a number of requirements mentioned to produce an overall area or country assessment. It is important to note that we will work through in detail a number of areas, but you can simply skip to the areas or data sources that are relevant to your requirements and incorporate them into your existing reporting streams.
Area assessments are an excellent start point for understanding an operating environment. Possible outputs include:
Understanding area atmospherics
Identify threat actors
Establish social pattern-of-life for an area
Learn the physical terrain
Learn the human terrain
Use cases include, but are not limited to:
NGOs prior to deploying to conduct disaster relief or humanitarian activities
Security personnel organizing an event or travel to an unknown area or country
Travel security or awareness for staff
Tracking developments of major events or incidents (i.e. coronavirus) throughout the world and how that may affect your operations or personnel
This method is not exhaustive but can serve as a repeatable process for conducting and reporting an area assessment. The key outcome will be determining how you need to report the data. If it is for a briefing, then you may wish to look at summarised slides that you can talk to the key points. If it is for comprehensive review or to support more in-depth actions, then a fully-fledged document may be required that captures in verbose detail the content and assessments by the analyst. We will leave that up to you, but the content and process should remain the same once you are comfortable with the reporting requirements.
Below is a high-level process for area assessments:
It is important to frame the different layers of strategic, operational and tactical which relate to your assessment. Each of these layers has a very important correlation to which tools provide what information. Having a cascading approach to collection and analysis will allow you to nest elements of your reporting in a logical and easy to digest manner.
With the high-level process in hand, we will look at each section and the various sources of information that you can use to collect & then conduct analysis for your assessment.
Quick Links TL;DR There is a lot of content in this post where you may only be after quick links for information sources. Below is a "resources-on-a-page" snapshot of the content contained in this blog post. Ready on for detailed information, or use the resource pack below for quick reference:
Maps. Starting an area overview should naturally include mapping. A number of great mapping tools exist, but we have curated some of the most useful for specific area assessments below.
A great tool that can be useful to assess multiple map providers side-by-side is Map Compare (https://mc.bbbike.org/mc/#). This tool is great for seeing what different satellite imagery can be obtained for the same area in a single pane of glass. It is also very useful if you need to assess aspects such as slant angles of imagery to get different aspect views of a building or area.
Below you can see we are able to compare satellite imagery from Yandex, Esri and Bing side-by-side:
Another excellent tool is Dual Maps (https://www.mapchannels.com/DualMaps.aspx). This allows you to build an interactive map that combines Google Street View, Satellite imagery and a normal street map into a very effective interface. You can drag the "human" icon around and it will automatically move the various aspects of the map.
There are a number of other resources that can be used based on your requirements. An example can be the building of custom maps with only specific data on them. For example, you may be interested in understanding what the water-ways or traffic paths are for a particular area, and using tools at MapBox (www.mapbox.com) you can sign-up and start making maps based on your needs.
Below is a list of other useful mapping tools:
MapBox (www.mapbox.com): Build custom maps
OpenStreetMap (https://www.openstreetmap.org): Open source map provider
Google Maps (maps.google.com)
Bing Maps (bing.com/maps)
Yandex Maps (yandex.com/maps)
Free Map Tools (https://www.freemaptools.com): Calculate distances, areas and other useful aspects of planning for specific areas using a map based approach