Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT): How to Access Public Information

Thanks to the digital boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, the ability to uncover incredibly detailed information became more accessible than ever.

What kind of information? Common identifiers like a person’s full name, address history, and maybe a phone number or email address are readily available. But did you know you can find much more detailed information about nearly anything or anyone

If you know how to perform and collect open-source intelligence (OSINT) you can deduce a lot of information on a subject if you know where to look. Whether you’re a journalist, a researcher, a business analyst, or just a curious individual, understanding OSINT can empower you to make informed decisions.

You simply need to know where to look through the wealth of public data that’s available to all.

What is Open-Source Intelligence?

Access Public Information

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) refers to the process of collecting and analyzing information from publicly available sources in a legally accessible manner. This includes collecting information from traditional news media outlets, government reports, social media platforms, public forums, professional associations, property records, business filings, and more.

The beauty of OSINT lies in its universality – it’s a skill set that’s available to anyone with an internet connection and a keen sense of curiosity.

“Being legally accessible is an important distinction because you cannot trespass, hack, bribe, harass, or threaten another entity to collect the information,” said Wes Anderson, Director of Operations for the opposition research firm, Reveille Advisors. “The information can be located in very hard-to-find corners of the internet or your local courthouse, but as long as anyone can access it, you’re golden!”

Utilizing the Power of Public Records

Public records are a goldmine of information for OSINT practitioners. These records are maintained by government agencies and can include anything from property records and court documents to marriage and birth certificates. Accessing these records can provide insights into individuals’ and various entities’ legal and financial status. 

Thankfully, most government agencies (on all levels from County to Federal) have digitized their records, making them searchable through their official websites. For instance, county websites often host property records, zoning information, previous work permits, and electoral rolls. For everything that’s not online, you can still go to your local courthouse or city hall to inquire further. 

You’re also able to gain access to public records outside of official channels. This happens because these databases are often scrapped and/or sold to other third-party entities which is why whenever you buy a new house or car, you immediately get junk mail for affiliated services.

Two examples of this are Zillow and REALTOR, where you can see a property’s previous sale prices, property taxes, and the real estate agencies used. Depending on what you’re looking for, consider niche websites as resources too!

The Role of Social Media in OSINT

Social Media in OSINT

Social media platforms have always been a treasure trove of real-time data and a vital tool for any OSINT targeter. X and Facebook used to be the best, as everyone and their cousin shared every little detail about their lives.

You could search for whatever you were curious about and likely find it! However, with Elon locking down X without an account and Facebook changing and updating how their search works over the years, both have experienced diminished reach. Thankfully, apps like Snapchat, TikTok, Reels, Instagram, and LinkedIn still have fairly robust search options.

OSINT practitioners can gather tons of information on everything from public sentiment and trends to tracking the movements and activities of individuals.

The key is to use these platforms ethically and responsibly, respecting privacy and data protection laws. You cannot and should not stalk or harass anyone – ever. But for valid investigations or market research, social media can be incredibly insightful!

See also: How to Find Someones Location on Facebook

Leveraging Google Advanced Search Operators

Google’s “Advanced Search Operators” are powerful methods for refining search queries and uncovering specific information. Also known as Boolean Operators, using specific operations like “site:”, “filetype:”, and “intext:” can help you locate information hidden deep within websites or specific types of documents.

These operators enable you to conduct precise searches, saving time and improving the accuracy of your findings. Let’s look at a couple of examples you can put into Google’s search engine for specific results:

  • site:hacker9.com + “Wes Anderson” should return only this article since we quoted Wes above. This works because his name only appears in this single article across our entire website. Using this advanced search operator allowed us to find that specific and exact mention very easily. 
  • site:hacker9.com intitle:WiFi should return three stories on Hacker9 that have “WiFi” in the title of the story. This can be helpful if you don’t remember the specific details about the article, but you recall it had “WiFi” in the title. 

To learn more about these helpful search parameters, visit Google and type allintitle: “Google Advanced Search Operators” into the search bar. This will return more resources with “Google Advanced Search Operators” in their title for you to read.

Utilizing People-Finder Websites

Websites such as PeopleLooker.com (and many more) offer an all-in-one place to locate individuals and uncover associated information such as addresses, contact details, employment history, and in some cases, what their mortgages are. What?! We’re not kidding, in many jurisdictions, the details of a real estate transaction, including your original mortgage value and lender, are public records.

Here’s where a new wrinkle in OSINT appears – free version or paid version. On the free version of PeopleLooker, you cannot see all these details, only snippets to whet your whistle. However, for $10 a month or a one-week subscription, you can do all the searches you want and glean this type of depth in detail.

Is that a violation of being “open source” if you paid for access to the platform? No, because anyone in the general public can also make an account to see the same info. It’s not privileged or restrictive, so it’s legal.

While these services can help speed up an OSINT investigation, it’s important to note that this information can be and will be flawed. It can point you in a direction quickly, but it still requires you to manually audit the validity of what’s shown. Nothing is ever 100% spotless and without error.

Related article: USPhoneBook – Free Phone Number Lookup Site

Making FOIA or Public Access Requests

Making FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a powerful tool that allows individuals to request access to records from any federal agency in the United States. FOIA requests can uncover a wealth of information not readily available through other means.

Whether you’re seeking government reports, emails, or other official documents, understanding how to craft and submit a FOIA request can open doors to hidden information. However, FOIA only applies to Federal agencies, so what are you to do locally?

“Due to the frequency of abuse by those in law enforcement and all levels of government, most State and local jurisdictions now have similar pipelines to access public records,” Anderson mentioned.

Known appropriately as “Public Access” laws, you can secure quite a bit of information from your local and State agencies. Such examples include body cam footage of local police interactions, police reports, and more. Keep in mind that they usually don’t have to comply to the extent the Federal agencies do, so being polite can go a long way here.

Putting OSINT to Use

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) provides an accessible pathway for anyone to gather and analyze information. By leveraging public records, social media, search engines, and official databases, individuals become more capable in whatever sector they’re working in.

OSINT is universal and the value of uncovering unique insights can be a game-changer no matter your interest!  Whether you use this insight for personal curiosities, investigative journalism, industry research, or corporate intelligence services, you’ll have informed information that others do not. 

However, it’s crucial to approach OSINT with ethical considerations in mind, respecting privacy and legal boundaries. As you progress in your skills and gain more knowledge, you’ll need to remember that the power of accessing this type of information comes with the responsibility to use it wisely and ethically. 

Embracing these OSINT practices not only enhances your ability to navigate the information-rich world we live in but also equips you with the knowledge to question, analyze, and understand the data that surrounds us. Start exploring these resources, and you’ll be amazed at what you can discover.

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Ashwin S

A cybersecurity enthusiast at heart with a passion for all things tech. Yet his creativity extends beyond the world of cybersecurity. With an innate love for design, he's always on the lookout for unique design concepts.