A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your First OSINT Program

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is the collection and analysis of information from publicly available sources. As an essential method for gathering intelligence, OSINT plays a critical role in cyber threat intelligence, cybersecurity, penetration testing, national security, and law enforcement investigations.

With the massive growth in digitally available data and the tools to collect and process this information, OSINT presents invaluable insights and intelligence. However, for an OSINT beginner, knowing where to start can be daunting.

This blog serves as a step-by-step beginner’s guide to building your first OSINT program. By the end, you will have a clear framework to gather, analyze, and operationalize open-source data to enhance security and decision making.

What is OSINT and Why is it Important?

OSINT or Open-Source Intelligence refers to publicly accessible information collected and used to derive actionable intelligence. Unlike classified sources of intelligence, OSINT is obtained through legal means from open sources, including:

  • News publications

  • Academic literature

  • Public government data

  • Corporate records

  • Websites

  • Social media platforms

  • Online forums

  • Job listings

And essentially any other publicly available online or offline source.

OSINT holds critical value for a wide range of use cases:

  • Cyber Threat Intelligence – Track threat actors, identify emerging attack trends, vulnerability exploitation, and other insights to enhance security.

  • Competitive Intelligence – Gain market awareness, benchmark competitors, understand industry shifts, identify partnership and acquisition targets.

  • Fraud Investigations – Uncover fraudulent activities, intellectual property infringements, counterfeit goods sales, and criminal funding networks.

  • Geopolitical Analysis – Monitor societal and political shifts, analyze global events, uncover disinformation campaigns.

  • Risk Management – Surface reputational threats, detect data exposure, compliance violations and insider threats.

Clearly, OSINT presents invaluable intelligence. But like any capability, having an effective framework and methodology is vital to success, especially for beginners.

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Step 1: Identify Your Intelligence Requirements

When building your first OSINT program, the first step is to clearly define your intelligence requirements –  the specific questions or unknowns you want OSINT to uncover. Much like gardening, you must start with the end in mind.

Some example intelligence requirements:

  • What cybercriminal groups target organizations in my industry? What are their latest tactics, tools, and procedures (TTPs)?

  • How much publicly exposed data exists on our employees and technology infrastructure?

  • Which competitors are gaining the most market traction? How do our product offerings compare?

  • What supply chain risks or regulatory shifts could impact operations?

Outline 4-5 key intelligence requirements that map to your highest priority objectives for the OSINT program, whether it be security analysis, competitive intelligence, investigations, or otherwise. These requirements will drive decisions in subsequent stages regarding tools, techniques, and processes.

Step 2: Identify Sources

With intelligence requirements defined, the next step is listing information sources that can address those requirements.

Sources vary significantly in depth, reliability, and accessibility. OSINT frameworks like the one below help navigate options:

An intricate mind map detailing the OSINT Framework with nodes categorizing various tools and resources for information gathering across different domains such as network analysis, geolocation, data breaches, and dark web exploration.

Source

Prioritize free sources first as you build OSINT capabilities. Some valuable free sources include:

  • Search Engines – Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo

  • Social Media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube

  • Technical Databases – ShodanCensysRISI

  • Collaboration Platforms – GitHub, Developer Forums

  • Geospatial Tools – ZoomEarth

  • Public Records – Edgar, PACER

  • Web Archives – Wayback Machine

The list of publicly available sources is endless. Focus on free options first and identify paid sources to incorporate later as needed.

Step 3: Select Your Tools

The third step is choosing OSINT tools to automate the collection and analysis of data from selected sources. Manually sifting through publicly available information is ineffective given the rate information grows online.

Rely on tools tailored to your experience level and specific intelligence requirements. Some examples include:

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General Search

  • Google Dorks/Hacking – Special search engine queries to surface non-indexed content.

  • Datasploit – OSINT aggregation and automation tool great for beginners.

Social Media Analysis

  • Twint – Fast open-source Twitter scraping and analysis.

  • GetSocial – Instagram analytics like follower demographics and engagement metrics .

Web Reconnaissance

  • Recon-ng – Full-featured web reconnaissance framework perfect for beginners.

  • FOCA – Metadata harvesting for document and website security auditing.

Location Intelligence

  • GeoFeedia – Real-time geofenced social media monitoring for a targeted region.

  • Bellingcat Toolbox – Location-focused verification techniques for online images and videos.

The list goes on based on specialty. Focus on documenting your process and refine tools over time as needed.

An overview of various cybersecurity tools listed under categories such as Information Gathering, Vulnerability Analysis, Wireless Attacks, and Web Applications, labeled as "KALI TOOLS".

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A screenshot of a Kali Linux terminal running an Nmap network scan, highlighting various open ports on the scanned system.

Source

A terminal snapshot showing the details and options for the DNS Cache Snooper module in the Recon-ng toolkit, which is used to discover visited domains.

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Other OSINT Tools, Techniques, and Resources

A graphical user interface of Searx Admin displaying customizable search shortcuts for Google, Google Images, Google News, Google Play Apps, Google Play Movies, Google Play Music, and Google Scholar.

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The search interface of ANONYMIZE.com, featuring a simple search bar with tabs for general, files, images, IT, map, music, news, science, social media, videos, and advanced settings, all highlighting the website's focus on privacy.

Source

A terminal display showing the usage instructions and options for TWINT, a command-line Twitter scraping tool designed to collect tweets based on various search criteria.

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A screenshot of a Linux terminal showing TWINT command line output with a stream of tweets related to #OSINT, including user handles and tweet excerpts.

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Step 4: Develop Your Methodology

With requirements, sources, and tools established, the next step is developing an OSINT methodology that ties everything together into a repeatable framework. A basic methodology:

Planning

  • Outline intelligence requirements

  • Identify information sources

  • Select tools

Collection

  • Leverage tools to extract data from selected sources

  • Store data in a central repository

Analysis

  • Assess data relevance to requirements

  • Identify patterns and anomalies

  • Enrich data with supplemental sources

Dissemination

  • Create intelligence products answering requirements

  • Establish processes for stakeholder consumption

Feedback

  • Evaluate process gaps

  • Refine methodology for future iterations

This basic OSINT cycle facilitates a learning loop for continuous enhancement. Now it’s time to execute.

Step 5: Build Your First OSINT Report

With the framework established, execute your first end-to-end OSINT collection, analysis and dissemination exercise. Maintain focus on delivering against 1-2 intelligence requirements rather than diluted analysis on too many fronts.

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Some best practices for your first report:

  • Demonstrate the full intelligence cycle from planning to dissemination.

  • Focus on freely available sources to control scope.

  • Select analysis technique(s) tailored to your experience level.

  • Deliver findings in an easy-to-understand report format digestible to stakeholders.

Do not aim for perfection out of the gates. View the first report as establishing an initial capability to refine over subsequent iterations. The key is learning by doing.

Step 6: Evaluate and Enhance

With the first full OSINT exercise complete, conduct an after-action review on what worked well and what requires refinement in your methodology. Key evaluation criteria:

  • Were my intelligence requirements addressed? If not, why?

  • What collection sources provided the highest value? Lowest value?

  • What tools were most effective? Which fell short?

  • Were analysis techniques sufficient to extract insights?

  • Did the report format effectively communicate findings?

Identify 2-3 areas of enhancement and refine your OSINT program using an agile, iterative approach. View OSINT capabilities as perpetually evolving to drive continuous value.

Bottom Line

Developing an OSINT practice requires thoughtful planning, flexibility in tooling and techniques, and a focus on iteration. While public information presents immense opportunity, having a dialed methodology is vital to operationalize insights at scale.

This initial framework offers a starting point to build capabilities delivering security and intelligence value. What intelligence requirements would you want OSINT to help uncover? How might this methodology need tailoring for your first open-source program?

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