How GDPR affects OSINT

The introduction of GDPR was a shock to many. While there are limitations, it doesn’t prohibit OSINT work completely. Find out what you can or cannot do when conducting investigations.

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In almost all OSINT activities, we process (e.g. collect, store, analyse, reproduce) personal data including names, addresses, user names, phone numbers, IP addresses and much more. However, the new data protection legislation introduced in the European Union in May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), restricts the processing of personal data. Therefore, OSINT researchers need to have good understanding of how the GDPR applies to their situations, if only to stay on the legal side with their work.

In this blog post, we will discuss GDPR basics for OSINT researchers. We will not look at the exceptions. Processing personal data for household use or for journalistic purposes are for the most part exempted under the GDPR. Of course, the devil is in the details with respect to when these exemptions actually apply and this blog post will not go into those cases. Also, we will not look at OSINT for law enforcement use, as that has a different legal framework for dealing with personal data.

Hence, we will aim at OSINT in a commercial setting, where the researcher is dealing with matters such as background investigations, third party assessments and pre-employment screenings. Furthermore, this article will only discuss those GDPR aspects which are most relevant for OSINT work as we see it now. The GDPR is an extensive regulation with numerous aspects, which we cannot fully discuss in a single blog post.

Also please keep in mind: We are not lawyers and the implementation of the GDPR can differ between EU countries in numerous details. If you are reading this to seek legal advice, you should consult your friendly lawyer instead.

Summarising the GDPR, the aspects relevant for OSINT work are:

  1. You need a legal basis for processing personal data;
  2. You need to apply certain principles in the processing of personal data;
  3. The data subject of whom you process personal data has specific rights you need to understand, anticipate and honour.
  4. Understand if you are the data controller or the data processor.

Legal basis

Data protection regulation was never meant to render the processing of personal data impossible. Instead it is meant to balance the need for data exchange in our society on the one hand, and the fundamental right of privacy for citizens on the other. It is  therefore important to note that privacy is not an absolute right. The GDPR balances this right with other rights by restricting the processing of personal data to instances where there is a legal ground (Article 6). It lists six different grounds, of which three are potentially relevant for OSINT work: consent (Article 6a), legal obligation (Article 6c) and legitimate interest (Article 6f). We will discuss these three in detail.

Article 7 of the GDPR sums up the conditions for consent. Consent is tricky because the GDPR states that the data subject should have free choice when giving consent. However, for example, free choice in an employer/employee relationship does not really exist. Consent can – according to the GDPR – also be withdrawn at any time. So what happens when a data subject withdraws his or her consent halfway into an investigation? Or when it turns out afterwards, that the consent cannot be regarded as given freely?

Due to this ambiguous legal nature of consent under the GDPR, we believe that for OSINT investigations the use of consent should be avoided whenever possible. The risk that the data subject could afterwards argue that he or she had no choice than to give consent because of the consequences at risk, is simply too large. Moreover, often it is practically not possible to obtain consent especially if you, for example, are examining social media of the circles around your subject.

The second potential ground for processing personal data, that may be relevant for OSINT work, is legal obligation. This could be the case when your client has the obligation to identify their customers and the source of their funds under Anti Money Laundering (AML) regulations. Especially if you are instructed by a financial institution, this may likely be the overall legal basis for your OSINT work.

The third ground for processing personal data that may be relevant for OSINT work is a legitimate interest of your client.

What is legitimate interest? This is a tricky question, as it does not directly relate to any other law or regulation. Imagine the following scenario: A large stock-listed fashion company is in the process of hiring a new CEO. A final candidate is presented and the company puts him through a pre-employment screening. The company is known for their strong stance against animal cruelty and has supported many awareness campaigns in this regard. It has become their corporate identity. During the pre-employment screening pictures are found on social media, showing the CEO-candidate participating in annual fox hunts. If this information would leak when the CEO is already in position, it would surely cause a major scandal, possibly decreasing the stock value of the company and causing job layoffs.

The scenario described above could be a legitimate interest, as the financial situation of the company and thus the prosperity of many employees could be affected be the actions of one person. Nonetheless, pre-employment screenings are frowned upon in certain EU-countries.

Another example can be a simple fraud investigation, where you are tasked with identifying possible assets belonging to a person suspected of fraudulent actions. Your client claims to be defrauded and would like to initiate legal action. As such, the client has a legitimate interest to instruct you identifying possible assets of the perpetrator.

In sum, as an OSINT investigator, you should always understand and document the legal basis to process personal data before conducting your research. In a commercial setting, that will most often be either be a legal obligation or a legitimate interest of your client. We advise to always properly document the legal basis, for example, by explicitly detailing the situation in an engagement letter or contract for the work. More in general, and from an ethical point of view, we believe that you should always want to understand what the purpose of your work is and the interest of the client.

Principles

Regardless the exact legal basis, Article 5 of the GDPR imposes a number of principles for the actual processing of personal data. Each of these are relevant for OSINT work and therefore we will discuss them all.

  1. Lawfulness, fairness and transparency

Lawfulness is self-explanatory: You need a legal basis to process the personal data. This should be one of the six legal bases as provided in Article 6. Furthermore, you should not hack, steal or lie to get the data and to prove this, you need to document the sources – which a professional OSINT researcher would do anyway. Not only are these actions unfair and unethical, they may as well be illegal in many cases. Fairness also relates to proportionality. Is the amount of personal data you collect on the data subject proportional to the task at hand? Transparency is touched upon in more detail in Article 14 of the GDPR (situations where the data is not collected from the data subject), we will discuss this further along.

  1. Purpose limitation

Again, pretty easy. What you collect for one purpose, shouldn’t be used for another incompatible purpose.

  1. Data minimization

You should minimise the amount of personal data to what you really need. As much as necessary, as little as possible. So when you scrape gigabytes of data, only the information relevant to your task should be retained.

  1. Accuracy

You have the obligation to make sure that data is of good quality, thus do not use outdated information or data of which you know it is incorrect. Especially when working with people search engines, you will stumble upon a lot of old or false info (false flags) on individuals. You are responsible for verifying the data where possible before further processing or reporting.

  1. Storage limitation

How long do you retain your records? The GDPR states that it should not be longer than needed. In an ongoing litigation that could be years, but often not more that general data retention obligations such as in civil or tax law should be followed. Again, this can differ per country.

  1. Integrity and confidentiality

You are responsible for keeping the personal data you process secure. The fact that you may have collected it from open sources is completely irrelevant, it shouldn’t be publically disclosed from your side. The adagio here is: If you cannot protect it, don’t collect it.

  1. Accountability

The basically means that when processing data you should not only adhere to the previous principles, you should also be able to demonstrate afterwards that you did. The GDPR has shifted the burden of proof to those processing personal data, so you need to document!

A most efficient solution to document on how you comply with the GDPR is to draft an investigation protocol in which you describe how you process personal data and how you apply these principles to your work. In any assignment or when you get questions from the Data Protection Authority (DPA), you can refer to the protocol.

Data subject rights

The third category of GDPR provisions relevant for OSINT, is the data subject rights. According to GDPR, a data subject has rights of:

  • Notification

Every data subject shouldbe notified which personal data is processed by whom, why and where. GDPR Article 13 and 14 state that no matter if collected from the subject itself or without knowledge of the data subject, they must be informed in order to be able to contest this data collection and processing. Again, this proves to be tricky, especially when conducting investigations against a certain subject.

In some cases, the notification might be disproportional in regards to effort that has to be made in order to inform the data subject.

  • Every data subject has the right of access, right to rectification, right to erasure, right to restriction

If informed, a data subject has the right of access to all data stored on him- or herself, the right to restrict further dissemination (if not necessary by law), and last but not least the right to have all data deleted. Of course, this must be weighed against the legal basis or legitimate interests upon which the investigations took place.

There is also an exemption on these rights possible under article 23 of the GDPR which states that Member States can limit the obligations and rights under the GDPR in certain instances. This has to be done by law and every Member State may have implemented this provision differently. The Netherlands have Article 41 of their national implementing law which fully integrates Article 23 GDPR.  Does your country have the same?

Of course, if you would use an exemption, you need to document the circumstances and considerations on why you think that this exemption is justified. Be careful with this and understand the local implementation of the (conditions for) exemptions before you apply them.

Are you the controller?

A final important point relevant for OSINT work is whether you are the data ‘controller’ (the one who determines the purposes and means of the processing of the personal data) or the data ‘processor’ (the one who processes personal data on behalf of a controller).

The easiest situation is where you are the data processor and you process data under responsibility of the data controller. In those instances, most of the legal obligations are  mainly the responsibility of the data controller, which usually is your client.

However, the determination on whether you are the processer depends on the level of freedom you have in choosing the purpose and methods of processing the data. If you determine the purpose, types of data and methods applied, you cannot argue that you are just the processor, as you in fact ‘control’ the data processing.

Having a data processing agreement with a client – or adding a section on data processing to your existing agreement – is an important prerequisite to be regarded as the processor. To be regarded as the processor, the agreement should clearly show that you are instructed for a specific purpose, looking at specific types of data and applying specific methods (and excluding anything else) and reporting in a specific way. Once more, consult your friendly lawyer for more details.

There is limited jurisprudence on GDPR issues and this means, that in many instances it is not exactly sure how the GDPR will be interpreted exactly. The principles should give some guidance, nonetheless, in high profile cases make sure you discuss these matters with your client and (their) inhouse legal counsel.

We have given a general overview of the most relevant aspects of the GDPR for OSINT work. However, we realise that we are not complete in that matter. The GDPR has a number of other relevant articles, for example on processing of special categories of personal data, but there are limits to what we can cover in one blog post.

So, get your copy of the GDPR today as well as a copy of the implementing law in your country, read it, seek advice, understand it and most important: Comply with it!

Ludo Block & Matthias Wilson (I just chipped in a little)/ 11.06.2019

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