Crime Analysis Meets OSINT: The Key to Connecting the Clues We Cannot See

August 15, 2022

The 2022 International Association of Crime Analysts Conference (IACA) will kick-off in Chicago on August 22nd. The training conference is an excellent forum to help analysts from around the world improve their skills, make valuable contacts and to help agencies understand how to make the best use of criminal data analysis. We both love this conference and have both been attendees and presenters for almost two decades! More important, this is the perfect opportunity to also discuss the emerging role of open-source intelligence (OSINT) as an investigative tool in the digital era.

The evolutions of policing and crime analysis have largely followed the same technological evolution as most other parts of life: everything is now online. To that end, crime analysis and intelligence analysis involving online data has become a critical facet of modern law enforcement analysis and investigations. It’s not just a critical component. In some situation, it’s the most important piece of data you need to support an investigation or community policing initiative.

The Evolving Role of Online Data in Crime Analysis

In traditional policing, investigators would typically examine evidence and reach out to neighboring jurisdictions for supplemental information if a clue led them in that direction. In addition, crime analysts often analyzed only the data in their Records Management System (RMS) or in their regional data sharing system. But since the advent of smart phones and digital media, crime analysis must extend to beyond the “local” data set to all available data sources, including the world wide web.

This is where open source comes into play. Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) refers to all publicly available data, and, in an investigation, analyzing and applying it for intelligence-building purposes. Examples of open-source data can include posting online threats, advertising of illicit goods on the Dark Web, leaving a review online for a business or asking questions in an online public forum. All this data gives another dimension to a subject or a place. This data can indicate activity, locations, threating sentiments, and online connections to other users.

Think about this online activity like the paper contact card from the 1990’s and early 2000’s. That snapshot in time – where the person was located, who they were with and what they were doing – is now captured in the digital landscape with online activity, connections and forums. All these facets demonstrate how OSINT data is as important as the data housed in a law enforcement agency’s records management system (RMS). Those link charts that showed activity analysts found in incident reports, calls for service records and contact cards can now be amplified 1,000 times when you add open-source data into the analytical mix.

If you’ve been around a while, you remember the value add you got when your agency finally started using and contributing to regional data sharing programs – seeing CAD and RMS data from a neighboring jurisdiction was a game changer! That’s the same value add as including OSINT into your analysis.  It provides analysts with another perspective to help supplement community and problem oriented policing efforts and to help mitigate potential threats to the community. Cobwebs’ Tangle platform is another valuable instrument in the analyst’s toolkit.

OSINT Gives Crime Analysis Another Data Layer

Any time you conduct a Google search, you are conducting open-source intelligence analysis. But did you know that what you get back in that Google search return is only about 10 -15% of the web? Could you imagine writing a query in your RMS and only getting back 10-15% of the reported crimes in your RMS? You would be missing a ton of valuable data! The same thing can be said for using Google as your only means for conducting open-source intelligence analysis. You are missing a lot!

Conducting Google searches and reading Reddit isn’t efficient and it is not analysis – analysts need a tool like Cobwebs Technologies’ Tangles platform to search deep, dark, and open web sources to identify links between people, places, and businesses quickly, safely, and seamlessly. Not only can Tangles operate as a force multiplier in terms of alleviating manual investigations, but it can scour multiple platforms and sources all at once! Online media contains a treasure trove of insights regarding people, places, and businesses, but searching through posts isn’t an efficient use of time. Analysts are already spread thin – supporting patrol, investigations, admin, and command staff. This is another reason why automated tools are a necessity in today’s online data world.

OSINT in Crime Analysis “Action”

Incorporating OSINT in an analyst’s daily workflow is as imperative as sharing RMS data across jurisdictions. So much of our daily lives are online now. Don’t miss that 85-90% of the critical information that you need to help detectives, supervisors and command staff make your community safer, mitigate that threat, or find that missing piece to your investigative puzzle.

Allison Sullivan and Dr. Sally Rawlings have been analysts in the criminal investigation field for more than 20 years. If you will be attending IACA in Chicago, stop by the Cobwebs booth to meet the team and see a demonstration of the Tangles technology.