OSINT Key Findings in the Year 2009

Syria, nonproliferation sanctions, OSINT, Google Dorks and SIGINT. In 2009, these all came together in an interesting investigation.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about my opinion on the future of OSINT and while doing so, I had to think about how OSINT looked in the past and how it has evolved over the years. Gathering and analyzing information, not only through OSINT, has always been my passion and I’ve been doing this for about 20 years now. Just like the recent project with Sector035, where we unraveled a massive scam network, I have often conducted research on specific topics purely out of curiosity. These side projects were never work related, but the skills I then learned were eventually useful throughout my career. Often, reading a simple news article would send me down a rabbit hole. From looking up related news articles to spending hours on Wikipedia to creating link charts, largescale investigations were always only a mouse-click away.

I just recently recalled a project I worked on in early 2009. It all started with me looking into various nonproliferation sanctions lists. I think it was a news article that sparked my interest. These sanctions were and are imposed on countries that have been accused of trying to procure and/or produce weapons of mass destruction, e.g. nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. I started looking into government and non-government entities from Syria on those lists. Remember, this was back in 2009. There weren’t really many sophisticated OSINT tools back then, so most findings resulted from simple Google queries.

One of the entities I looked at was the Mechanical Construction Factory. Googling this led to millions of results, so I narrowed it down by adding quotation marks: “Mechanical Construction Factory”. My next step was looking for this search term in specific filetypes. PDF or Powerpoint documents have the tendency to contain more relevant information than your average webpage. Adding the filetype-operator in Google led to some rather interesting results.

For example, the Greek Exporters Association (SEVE) posted monthly spreadsheets of tenders originating from Syria. These lists contained information on who requested the offer (including addresses, phone numbers and email-addresses), as well as goods they were seeking to acquire.

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In order to find all tender spreadsheets on this page, I again used Google dorks. Combining the site-operator with the filetype-operator brought up all the PDFs saved in the 2008 directory. Since I only wanted to look at the PDFs for Syria, I used Google Translate to obtain the Greek spelling of Syria, as each spreadsheet had this somewhere in the document. The final query looked like this:

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I now had a long list of Syrian companies that had requested to purchase goods from Greece. Not only that, multiple companies used the same phone numbers, so I could assume that they were linked to each other in some way. I recall finding one or two companies that were linked to a sanctioned company by a phone number and that weren’t listed themselves.

Playing around with Google dorks had me find plenty of interesting material to go through. While I can still reproduce the example mentioned above (just try it yourself), the most interesting finding in this case is unfortunately lost.

Back then, Turkey had a government organization named “Undersecretariat for Defence Industries”. The Turkish abbreviation of this was SSM. The SSM-website doesn’t exist anymore, as the organization was renamed and restructured in 2018 (as SSB). This organization posted roughly 150 scanned original tenders from Syria on their website. While not directly accessible through a dedicated page, using the Google dorks had them appear in my queries. These documents contained phone numbers, addresses, signatures and seals that were stamped on the paper. Apparently, they were sent to Turkey in hardcopy or scanned and then sent electronically.

Keep in mind, I did all this at home. This was my hobby and not related to my actual line of work. I was a SIGINTer, not an OSINTer at work, tasked with a completely different area of operations. However, these original documents seemed like something my colleagues working on Syria would also be interested in. I took an example of one of the tender documents to work one day and showed it to the guys at the Syria desk. They could not believe that I had just found this online. Some of them where even convinced that I had access to their data and pulled it from there. I ended up directing them to all the documents I had discovered on the aforementioned Turkish site and they proved to compliment the knowledge the Syria desk already had.

While writing this article, I tried to find the those documents using the Wayback Machine, but as I previously mentioned they weren’t actually located on a site that could be easily accessed. So, they unfortunately weren’t archived. I went through the complete site map in the Wayback Machine with no luck. For those of you who don’t know this function, try it out. It is great to get an overview of the structure of a historic webpage.

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In 2009, many people underestimated the power of OSINT. In 2019, I don’t think many people will make that mistake again. No fancy tools were needed back then, just some Google dorks and perseverance to manually go through hundreds of PDFs. Although things have changed in the OSINT world and continue to change as we move along, I am sure there is still plenty of juicy information that can be found on the internet by just mastering the use of Google operators. Happy hunting, fellow OSINTers!

Matthias Wilson / 27.09.2019

Intelligence Collection on the Train

Sometimes I miss my SIGINT days: Listening into my target’s phone calls and getting juicy intelligence out of this. However, you don’t always need SIGINT to eavesdrop on interesting conversations.

The company that I work for offers a broad variety of security products. When it comes to securing valuable data and information, most of our customers rely on technical solutions. However, the best firewalls and security suites will not help, if information is continuously disclosed outside of hardened IT-environments by careless employees. As a former SIGINTer I was always astonished about how much information my intelligence targets would openly share over non-secure lines. Now that I left SIGINT behind, I still have the chance to eavesdrop on conversations every once in a while.

I have a one-hour commute to work each day and the time I am on the train has proven to be a valuable social engineering and OSINT training ground. Two weeks ago, I was sitting on the train when a gentleman sat down next to me and immediately started making phone calls.

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The second phone call went to a woman named Kelly Adams. I know this because I could see her name on the screen of his phone. I could hear everything he said and since his volume was cranked up, I could also hear parts of what Kelly had said. Curious as I am, I immediately googled Kelly. Based on what I had heard, I could narrow it down to three individuals. One woman working for a large German defense company and two others in IT firms. The topic of the conversation was a pretty significant retention bonus that Kelly would receive, if she decided to stay with the company and move to Munich. It turns out the company was currently relocating its headquarters to Munich.

As soon as the gentleman ended this conversation, he started writing emails on his phone. Again in plain sight and did I mention that I am very curious? It turned out his name is Andreas Müller. Searching for the combination “Kelly Adams” and “Andreas Müller” led to the exact company. Dr. Andreas Müller was the head of the research and development department of a large German defense company and Kelly was one of the leading project managers for a specific branch. I did not need any sophisticated OSINT skills here, a simple Google query and LinkedIn search was enough. Dr. Müller then sent the details of the retention bonus to someone named Alfred, whom I assume was in HR. If I would have been working for an opposing company, I could have easily used this information to counter the offer Kelly received. But wait, it gets even better!

Next up, Dr. Müller opened spreadsheets depicting the budget of certain projects. Dr. Müller was sitting on my right and I held my phone to my right ear, simulated a conversation and managed to get a couple pictures of his screen. As of now, I had seen enough and it was time to approach him.

“Excuse me, Dr. Müller. May I ask you a question?”

You should have seen the look on his face. Surprised and shocked, as he was clearly not expecting this. I asked him if the conversations and the emails he had looked at were sensitive. I told him what I had picked up from his conversation with Kelly and showed him a picture of the spreadsheet. Still shocked, he did not really know how to react. I explained my line of work and handed him a business card. Dr. Müller can consider himself lucky, usually I charge customers for this kind of consulting and I think he learned a valuable lesson.

Remember: No matter how good your cyber security measures are, the most important aspect is minimizing human error and taking security serious at all times. I have often read that there is no patch for human stupidity. I do not agree and I am sure that Dr. Müller has been “patched” after our train ride.

I guess I never will be able to let the SIGINT side of me go. I just love eavesdropping in on people, so be careful what you say in public or on your phone, you never know if someone is  listening!

Matthias Wilson / 26.03.2019

The Nexus Analyst: Understanding your Customer’s Requirements

Nexus is ‘an important connection between the parts of a system’, according to the dictionary. In an intelligence environment, OSINT has the same function. Another example of how OSINT can provide important leads for HUMINT and SIGINT in Afghanistan.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is all about perseverance and following bread crumbs that lead to key findings. To be honest, you won’t always find the smoking gun and in some cases you might miss it. That’s one thing I have learned: No matter how hard you look, you are always likely to miss out on something. That is why the OSINT community on Twitter is so important. New tools and techniques are shared there and help broaden your own set of skills on a daily basis. Another important lesson, is to always have clearly defined objectives, the so-called Key Intelligence Questions (KIQ), when conducting OSINT research. What specifically is your intelligence customer asking for? This means you have to understand the ultimate goal and your customer’s mindset to a certain extent.

My concept called Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations (I2PO) relies on OSINT to support other intelligence collection types (ICT), such as Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) or Human Intelligence (HUMINT), and vice versa. Therefore, the OSINT analyst must understand the specific requirements for each ICT. If you deliver a phone number or email address to a HUMINTer, he might give you puzzled looks. Again, I would like to demonstrate my point with an OSINT case that might easily happen this way in military intelligence and intelligence services. In a previous blog post, we had HUMINT information as a starting point for OSINT. This time, we have a couple of Key Intelligence Questions.

Imagine we are forward deployed OSINT analysts in Afghanistan. We not only provide information on the general situation in our area of operations, but also support the adjacent HUMINT and SIGINT teams. Our HUMINTers want to know a little more about the family ties of their intelligence targets and the networks surrounding these people (KIQ 1). The SIGINTer just needs some selectors such as phone number and email addresses, which he could task in his SIGINT systems (KIQ 2). One of the intelligence targets happens to be Mohammad Atta Noor, a key power broker in Northern Afghanistan.

We start out with a simple Google search and we soon find an interesting site containing bios of Afghan VIPs: afghan.bios.info. The entry on Mohammad Atta Noor is quite detailed and also reveals the name of one his sons, Tariq Noor.

Next up we conduct a Google search on Tariq Noor in combination with the name of his father. This leads us to Tariq’s Twitter account, where he is pictured together with his father.

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Twitter also suggests further accounts to follow, one of them being Khalid Noor. It turns out that this is another son of Mohammad Atta Noor.

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So far, we have names and pictures of two sons. Knowing that Mohammad Atta Noor has even more children, we could continue our search and identify the other children, while trying to obtain pictures and more data on them. However, let us focus on Tariq and Khalid first. As their father is a successful businessman, it is likely that his sons have businesses of their own, or are maybe even connected to their father’s companies.

To check this, we again have a look at the Afghan company register (www.acbrip.gov.af). Since we cannot search for individuals here, we assume that Tariq and Khalid have companies named after themselves. This search within the Afghan company register produces good results. The first result when looking for Khalid Noor even gives us the phone number of Mohammad Atta Noor and a bit of his family history with the names of Mohammad Atta Noor’s father and grandfather.

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Mohammad Atta Noor is the president of the Khalid Noor LTD and states his father’s name is Haji Noor Mohammad and his grandfather’s name is Mirza Mohammad Gul. In Arabic and Central Asian countries, this information is valuable when distinguishing same-named persons. A look into the shareholders of this company reveal not only that Khalid is a shareholder, but also mentions other business partners (and their family history, as well as phone numbers). All this information helps build a network chart including the relevant family ties. This is the information our HUMINT team was looking for (KIQ 1). Of course, the phone numbers answer the Key Intelligence Question our SIGINT Team had (KIQ 2). A query for Tariq Noor produces similar results, including phone numbers of Tariq and his business partners.

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All in all, following OSINT bread crumbs led to amazing key findings. Now this information can be used for HUMINT operations, when trying to infiltrate the networks around Mohammad Atta Noor and, as mentioned, also to task SIGINT operations. A perfect example of I2PO!

In conclusion, this way to work makes me refer to an OSINT analyst within military and intelligence services as a ‘Nexus Analyst’, an analyst in between ICTs. Someone that knows what HUMINT or SIGINT really need to conduct their missions successfully and who takes this into account when browsing the web.

Matthias Wilson / 28.11.2018

I2PO – From HUMINT to OSINT to SIGINT

Sometimes even seemingly irrelevant information leads to key findings. In this case, the mere existence of a company led to unraveling the phone number of the son of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations, I2PO, is a concept on combining the different types of intelligence collection to achieve the best results. In the following example, I will demonstrate a perfect case of an intelligence workflow that starts with Human Intelligence (HUMINT), utilizes Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and lastly provides leads for Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).

Imagine you are part of a SIGINT team, dedicated to Afghan politics. While reading some HUMINT reporting, you come across a report regarding Batur Dostum, the son of the Vice President of Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum. The report informs about Batur’s businesses in Northern Afghanistan. One of the businesses mentioned is Batur Mustafa LTD.

This provides a starting point for OSINT research. While googling this company will not produce any notable results, a query within in the Afghan Central Business Registry (ACBR) might lead to some useful information. Luckily, the database in is English, so we will not have to use any translation tools. The ACBR database does not enable you to search for individuals, but we have the company name.

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The result of this query gives us plenty of relevant data. Not only do we receive information on the company itself, but also on its shareholders and their personal data. This includes names, father names, phone numbers and residencies.

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This is our target! Batur Dostum, the son of Abdul Rashid Dostum. He owns 50% of the company shares and his phone number is listed. The next step would be to task his phone number in our SIGINT collection. While we are at it, we should also task the phone number of the other shareholder and vice president of the company.

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It is highly likely that this phone number might also produce decent SIGINT results.

As you can see, a piece of information that might seem irrelevant to start with led to a key finding and the possibility to enable further intelligence operations.

Matthias Wilson / 19.11.2018

Harvesting Intel on India’s Nuclear Command – When OSINT meets SIGINT

Using OSINT to enable SIGINT. Imagine you are a SIGINT analyst keeping track of India’s nuclear forces. Luckily, you have some OSINT skills, which enable you to find selectors related to the former commander-in-chief of these forces. This could be a door opener to the current leadership…

So far, I have written short posts on how OSINT can support military decision makers as well as being a vital part of HUMINT operations. The key statement is that each intelligence collection type (ICT) requires a certain amount of OSINT to successfully prepare and conduct operations. This is a concept I call ‘Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations’, in short: I2PO.

One of the most secretive ICTs is Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). In many cases SIGINT services or SIGINT branches within services are isolated from other ICTs, thus making a cooperation between them challenging. This is one reason why SIGINT should incorporate dedicated OSINT capabilities, especially when doing preparatory research on new target areas or specific target decks.  On the one hand, OSINT could provide general information on the telecommunications infrastructure of a target area and on the other hand, OSINT could actually provide valuable selectors to task.

There are many different ways on how to support SIGINT with OSINT using the vast variety of OSINT tools and skills. In the following example, I would like to point out how to acquire additional selectors for a certain target deck.

Let us assume we are SIGINT analysts working on the India target desk, specifically the desk tasked with conducting SIGINT against India’s nuclear forces. A country’s nuclear forces are among the most highly protected and secretive assets. Finding SIGINT leads and selectors to gather credible information is an almost impossible task in this context. I assume the direct communication of these forces is secure and hardened. As a result, collecting official military communications from their dedicated channels can be ruled out. What other chances do we have to gather intelligence on our target?

SIGINT, as all other ICTs, feeds off mistakes that our targets make. If people were OPSEC-aware, we would not find so much information on the internet, HUMINT sources would not be so talkative and eavesdropping in on communications would not reveal that much. With this in mind, let us find a hands-on, doable approach towards our target. Sometimes people use non-secure communications to transmit confidential information. Our targets might do the same. So our first step would be to identify targets and their non-official selectors, hoping these could be tasked and provide valuable intelligence.

Unfortunately, none of the current leadership of India’s nuclear forces, the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), is overt enough to provide us with additional non-official selectors. To start, we look at the former leadership, expecting that they might still be in contact with some of the current administration. Press reporting indicates that the previous commander in chief of the SFC, Lieutenant General Amit Sharma, handed over his command in July 2016. This is close enough for us to assume that General Sharma will still occasionally get in touch with his former comrades.

Next up is an extensive Google search on General Sharma. As a high-ranking former member of the military, he might have directorships or board memberships in civilian companies. In our case he does not, so searches in company databases remain negative.

One of my favorite Google dorks is ‘filetype’, specifically looking for PDFs or PPTs. PDFs and PPTs often contain a lot of information, which helps give an overview of the target and sometimes provides leads for further research.

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This search results in several hits, mainly being studies and conferences in which General Sharma participated. However, the first hit is actually the gold nugget we have been looking for. In India, the Department of Public Enterprises hosts a database containing former CEOs, directors and government officials; including short résumés.

Let’s have a look a General Sharma’s résumé:

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Now we have a private email address and a mobile phone number belonging to General Sharma. These two selectors are tasked and a metadata analysis is conducted on both. Maybe he is in contact with his old comrades in the Strategic Forces Command. This is the door opener we needed to successfully approach our goal. We can also look up the address, which seems to be his home address. Sometimes this will also lead to further selectors.

I also hope that General Sharma did not use Dropbox to save the nuclear launch codes. Haveibeenpwnd lists his email and password as one of those hacked in the Dropbox data leak mid-2012.

As this examples shows, it is essential for SIGINT analysts to include OSINT research into their daily workflow.

Disclaimer: Although the data shown is real, the complete scenario described here is fictional. I have no idea if this information is known or used by intelligence services, nor do I have any insight on the assumption that India’s Strategic Forces Command is an intelligence target.

Matthias Wilson / 08.10.2018

Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations – (I2PO)

Whether you are

  • a HUMINT case officer in military intelligence,
  • a detective in the police force,
  • a SIGINT analyst in an intelligence service,
  • an investigator supporting or conducting due diligence businesses cases,
  • or a journalist researching for a new article,

you should have extensive knowledge of OSINT techniques.

Now why should these roles, especially the HUMINTer or SIGINTer, be proficient at OSINT? The following article will explain a concept of work that I call ‘Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations’, I2PO in short. The basic idea is that every element working within an intelligence cycle requires OSINT knowledge to either prepare, enable, conduct or support operations. In the future, I will also make a point on how this concept easily transfers to business cases, such as due diligence checks, and journalism as well.

First, let us define what OSINT actually is. Open Source Intelligence is acquiring information from generally  accessible sources. This includes data found on the internet as well as within traditional print media, TV- and radio broadcasts. I tend to use the term ‘generally accessible’ as opposed to ‘publicly available’ or ‘openly accessible’, as the data is accessible, however, sometimes in closed networks, behind paywalls or not traceable without extensive knowledge of OSINT. This, in my opinion, rules out the use of ‘publicly’ or ‘openly’, which implies that everyone could access the data easily.

Another important aspect is the term ‘intelligence’ within OSINT. Merely collecting data is not OSINT. Connecting the dots, looking for missing links, assessing the data and producing customer driven reporting is what makes intelligence out of it. This requires knowledge, experience and instinct; a combination which is very hard to replicate using fully automated OSINT tools. Thus, the most important element of OSINT is the analyst, no matter how many software-based tools and gadgets he or she uses.

Before considering how OSINT should be used in combination with other intelligence collection types (ICT), I want to point out some of the advantages when working with OSINT. OSINT data is usually available the moment you start working on a case and often published in near- or real-time, especially when following events on social media. Cases in which you work in a real-time environment, with changes occurring momentarily, bring us to the most important OSINT rule:

If you see it, save it!

You will never know if the data will still be there the next time you intend to look for it.

Depending on the case, you will also be dealing with mass data (or big data). This is where a certain degree of automation might be helpful, keeping in mind that the final assessment shouldn’t be performed solely by an AI. When speaking of quantity, you must consider the quality of the collected data as well. Especially in times like these, verifying information and filtering out disinformation is vital!

After years of work within government intelligence structures and working on business cases, I have therefore developed the concept of I2PO to define my work. This is also something I use as a theoretical basis in the OSINT and INTEL classes I teach. As mentioned before, the general idea is that many different jobs require OSINT skills in order to successfully achieve their goals. Therefore, I highly recommend an interdisciplinary approach. This means not only relying on one ICT, but also having an understanding on how OSINT can support HUMINT and SIGINT operations, police investigations and business cases and vice versa, just as well as OSINT provides information for decision makers as a standalone ICT.

In the following weeks, I will post examples of I2PO in different lines of work (e.g. SIGINT, HUMINT, police investigations, due diligence, journalism and more) to emphasize and further explain this concept.

To start out, I’ll describe I2PO when applied in a military intelligence environment supporting military operations.

I2PO to Support Military Operations

Military operations, such as the ongoing coalition missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, have heavily relied on intelligence collection through SIGINT and HUMINT in the past. These two ICTs demand a large amount of preparatory work and in times in which our adversaries are more cautious and OPSEC-aware, these two ICTs are hitting boundaries. HUMINT sources are having a harder time receiving information from core target networks and communications encryption is on the rise, creating new challenges for SIGINT. At the same time, the amount of information available through the extensive use of social media, even in the aforementioned crisis areas, is vastly growing on a daily basis. In Syria for example, information on troop movements or combat actions find its way across Twitter in near real-time.

In order for decision makers on the battlefield to react to situational changes in a timely manner, it is essential to have forward deployed intelligence elements able to conduct OSINT as it happens. In many cases, this work is done by special OSINT teams, many of them not even being in the actual combat zone. This will always lead to a time delay when disseminating information to the final intelligence customer and decision maker. As with tactical SIGINT or HUMINT, which are close to or in some cases organic to their intelligence customers, tactical OSINT is the answer. Sending a dedicated OSINT analyst forward to support operations is one solution. However, training existing intelligence personnel, enabling them to independently conduct OSINT on a case-by-case basis is another option. On these terms, the training would enable personnel to answer requests for information as they come in, rather than relaying these requests to another element, thus again resulting in a time delay.

This is what I understand as I2PO. Having an all-source analyst who is able to conduct OSINT research and to immediately verify the collected information when needed in time critical situations to support before, during and after military operations. In this example, two different skill sets (one being the all-source analytical expertise) being used in an interdisciplinary approach is the core factor of I2PO.

Matthias Wilson / 16.08.2018