Updated: Nov 13
The internet is often analogised as a vast and deep ocean of information, where websites are like islands floating on the surface, and web pages are the island inhabitants. Just as the ocean contains countless species and ecosystems, so too is the internet full of diverse types of data and information – everything from text and images to videos and interactive content. And in this analogy, we OSINT practitioners are the explorers charged with navigating the ocean in search of new treasures of data and information.
But collecting open-source data and information is not always smooth sailing. We don’t always know where to go or how to find what we’re looking for. Sometimes, we don’t even know what we’re looking for, and the ocean of online information we encounter can make it hard to identify trash from treasure. In this blog, I share four ideas to help you plan, prioritise, and navigate your open-source collection activities. And like the four cardinal points of a compass provided guidance and direction to the great explorers before us, I hope you find my ‘collection compass’ useful.
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East: the dawn of something new
Just as the sun rises in the east and signifies the start of a new day, east symbolises the start of our new collection project. East reminds us about all the things we should do (or at least consider) before we start collecting, including:
understand the different types of information available to us through open sources and what they can offer us;
identify relevant sources of information appropriate to our project;
leverage expertise and the interests of others to maximise resources;
understand our online footprint and any associated attribution risks;
determine any legal or ethical implications of our proposed collection methods;
identify a suitable source evaluation methodology;
identify the need for, and risks associated with, proposed collection methods;
conduct relevant in-person interviewing or debriefing to shape further collection;
employ simple structured analytical techniques (such as brainstorming, red-teaming or environmental scanning) to better understand the target issue and/or potential sources;
create and maintain a flexible collection plan to record information gaps and collection needs.
North: stability and direction
If north symbolises progression and advancement, then the collection plan is our guiding star. A collection plan is a structured and systematic approach to gathering data and information relevant to our specific intelligence objectives or mission. Collection plans are important because they help us to:
think about and confirm intelligence questions;
identify initial information gaps and record our collection needs;
focus, prioritise and coordinate collection efforts and maximise time and resources;
highlight, assess, and manage any risks associated with collection activities;
share information easily with team members, management, and customers;
structure our information gathering process in a way that makes subsequent analysis and reporting more efficient and effective.
Maintaining a simple collection plan can save us valuable time and resources. Collection plans are adaptable and should be adjusted and updated as needed to stay aligned with evolving circumstances, threats, and requirements. Having a documented collection plan also enhances accountability and oversight and keeps your work above board. It allows for post-activity reviews and is an ongoing record of standing information requirements – those tricky information gaps that are yet to be filled.
Sample Collection Plans
South: avoiding trouble on the high seas
South is often associated with moving from a harsh or challenging situation toward a more hospitable one. For OSINT practitioners, this point is about the tricky things we need to look out for when conducting open-source research and collection. Although each of us will encounter challenges that are unique to our target or problem-set, there are a few common perils to avoid.
On a ship, the First Mate doesn’t do the job of the Cabin Boy and the Boatswain doesn’t do the job of the Rigging Monkey. This is because all members of the crew have unique skills and experience to offer. It’s no different in an OSINT team. Some people will be excellent with technology and be able to find even the rarest of information treasure. But their planning or analytical ability might be just what you need to navigate rough waters. Leveraging the diverse skills and experiences in a team enhances our ability to tackle challenges effectively and deliver better quality outcomes for decision‑makers. Plus, team members will feel valued and motivated and you’re less likely to lose someone overboard.
Put simply, it’s not enough to just collect information treasure. To produce intelligence, we need to interpret and analyse the information we collect and make actionable judgments about what that information is telling us. And we need to be confident that the information we use to inform those judgments is of good quality. To set ourselves up for success, and to lay the groundwork for more in-depth analysis later, it’s important to put some formality and consistency around the evaluation of your sources and information collected. This process can be difficult and time consuming, often feeling like we’re trapped in a whirlpool. And it requires discipline and hard thinking to navigate. Check out our previous blog Verifying Information Online for a simple source evaluation methodology to improve your analysis and intelligence outputs.
Direction and focus
Just as staying the course was important for the early explorers, so too is staying on task when collecting open-source information. Why? Because in the endless ocean of online information, it’s easy to get distracted by new discoveries or even overwhelmed by the amount of information available to us. Staying focussed on our key intelligence questions is essential to maintain relevance, accuracy, efficiency, and completeness. Indiscriminately straying from our collection plan also wastes time and effort and is likely to cause us to miss critical information. Like explorers in the North Atlantic Ocean, always refer to your guiding star and try not to disappear into the Devil’s Triangle without a way back.
West: the transition of day into night (and night into day).
No, this doesn’t mean that we need to be up researching all night! The sun sets in the west and for us, it symbolises the conclusion of our collection project. Importantly, it also reminds us that another day (or project) will likely follow, and so we must prepare for our next voyage. Once we’ve finished our open-source collection activities, it’s easy to think we have all the answers – but we still have a long way to go before we can finalise our judgments in a manner fit for decision-makers. At this important port of call, we need to take stock of the information we have collected and determine its relevance, significance and intelligence value. We need to ask ourselves:
Do we need to collect additional or different information?
Have we evaluated our sources thoroughly?
What patterns, trends, anomalies, or insights can we identify from the information we have collected?
Have we updated our collection plan and confirmed new or outstanding information gaps?
Have we identified any new sources or even collection risks that may need greater deliberation?
Have we checked in with our customers and updated them on our initial findings?
Have we reviewed our initial intelligence questions and confirmed that we are still on the right track?
No open-source collection effort ever follows a direct route. Sometimes we will have too much information, sometimes we won’t have enough. Sometimes the information we collect will unveil more ‘known unknowns’ and this can mean a lot more work is required. But the effort we expend on this collection journey will always be worth it because it will lay the groundwork for more in-depth analysis, and eventually our final assessments. We should embrace iteration as a powerful problem solving and improvement tool, and trust that when we eventually leave this port, we will be ready to ‘full steam ahead’.
The interesting thing about compasses is that they don’t identify where you are, and they don’t tell you which way to go. All compasses really do is highlight your options and provide a reliable reference for orientation. In the OSINT-world, we often like to keep our location hidden, and our direction can sometimes be uncertain. But it’s important to always have a plan, and the ‘collection compass’ is a handy tool to have at the ready to guide us on our next information adventure.
To delve deeper into the learnings above or discuss how we can assist in uplifting your organisation's OSINT capability, please contact us about our NexusXplore platform, or our in-person and self paced training courses, including our Art of Open Source Intelligence Analysis Course.