The One OSINT Tool You Must Have to Supercharge Your Investigations
Everybody loves tools. It’s a basic instinct that probably kicked in around the moment the first caveman — or woman — realised that the jagged piece of flint they’d just stepped on would make skinning wildebeest much faster and more efficient.
Fast-forward just a little, and the dawn of the smartphone era made “There’s an app for that” a universally understood phrase — and most of us now carry around in our pocket a collection of programs and gadgets that a generation ago would have filled a small room. Cameras, calendars, word processors, detailed interactive atlases and entire encyclopedias that are constantly updated. It’s great, isn’t it?
Forget about tools.
Yes, forget about tools.
For a moment at least.
That may sound like strange advice coming from someone who’s spent time and effort putting together a website specifically to introduce the best free tools and services for online investigations. And at this point, you probably fall into one of two groups: (a) Those who are annoyed at the absence of the magical tool promised by the headline, or (b) those who are pleased to find that the twinge of healthy cynicism prompted by that piece of clickbait was well founded.
I’ve been providing training in online investigation and verification for close to a decade — for much of that time also working full-time in the field myself. One of the repeated refrains I hear from trainees, or from people organising workshops, is: “That was great. I feel like I’ve learned so much. When can we move on to advanced tools and techniques?”
I can’t stress enough how off-target this approach is. Investigation — like so many fields — is so much less about the tools than about how you use them.
Photography has long been an interest of mine. In the early days, I fell victim to the tendency to think that one more lens, one more filter, would be key to getting the kind of shots I wanted. This lasted until the realisation dawned that a skilled pro could produce better photos with a Holga than most of us can no matter what gear we have.
Similarly, the reason Bellingcat and The New York Times produce such high-quality investigative work is not because they have access to some arcane tools unavailable to the rest of us. It’s about the investigative mindset and discipline they bring to their work. It’s a subject we went into briefly when I was the guest on a recent edition of the OSINTCurious Webcast:
I find myself constantly explaining to people that even with a couple of days’ training, you — potentially — have all you need to carry out some very comprehensive investigative work. You just have to make the commitment to approach it in the right way.
Before declaring “I want to take my skills and knowledge to the next level”, ask yourself a simple question — albeit one that may have a painful answer:
“Have I produced anything worthwhile using my current level?”
If the answer is “no”, then the chances are that a whole new set of tools and techniques aren’t going to change that.
So, having provided that cold shower, do I have anything actually encouraging and helpful to tell you?
Of course I have. Firstly, yes, there are countless more complex and powerful tools out there, if that’s what you’re really interested in. You could spend all day, every day digging them out and learning how to use them. My point is: Don’t let them become a distraction, and don’t let not having them become an excuse.
Secondly, if you’re genuinely interested in carrying out meaningful investigations, the time you could spend on learning new tools and techniques would be more profitably used in reading examples of the great work done by some of the leaders in the field.
(I considered providing a bunch of links here but, let’s face it, if you can’t find them using a search engine, you probably have a long way to go before you’re exposing human rights abuses or bringing down corrupt multinationals.)
Finally, yes, the tools and their descriptions that I outline on OSINT Essentials are extremely useful. They will provide you with shortcuts and gateways to a wealth of online information. With initiative and imagination, you may well find uses for some of them that no one else even thought of yet. One of my big hopes is that, in making certain parts of online investigation easier, they may serve as an encouraging entry point into the field for at least some who — piqued by the possibilities — may go on to do far greater things.
If you do have use cases you’re particularly pleased with, I’d love to hear about them — and help spread the word. You can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter (DMs open).