Why OSINT is an essential tool for writers

Adam LeBor
18 February 2021
Article uploaded by
Emily Ronan

Every writer understands the frustration of an unproductive Google search when researching a story: results that are either irrelevant, unreliable or superficial. Worse still, your data is being mined – and sold on by Big Tech. Adam LeBor explains how you can easily revolutionise your online research and security by understanding Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).

Internet Research for Writers

Next course TBA
  • Gain the skills you need to search the internet truly effectively
  • Learn how to bypass misinformation and controlling search engines
  • Add authenticity to your stories and accuracy to your fact-checking

There’s no lockdown in cyberspace. We are all spending more time than ever roaming around the internet. The two essential questions about exploring cyberspace have not altered: how to find information, and how to stay secure and private while doing so.

The answers can be found in the growing field of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). OSINT means finding publicly available information on the internet, while not being tracked, by using a growing number of tools such as privacy based search engines, Virtual Private Networks and search strings. 

These may sound complicated, but they are not. OSINT provides an easy to use tool-kit for everyone from a beginner to advanced researchers. It’s an essential tool for writers.

OSINT can:

  • Take you back in time to a newspaper archive from nineteenth century frontier America or France in the 1920s
  • Show you how to search for particular documents or inside a website once you have located it
  • Help you find old versions of websites with now deleted content
  • Show you how to operate in any language and translate the results into English.

We cover all of these, and many more OSINT techniques in my one-day online workshop, Internet Research for Writers

But let’s start with the basics.

Improve your Google search terms

How do we take a deep dive into cyberspace? One way is through the use of search strings. The most basic is to put names (or telephone numbers) in quotation marks.

For example, a search for Tony Blair will bring up every webpage that mentions the word Tony or Blair. “Tony Blair” will return web pages that mention the full name. Searches can be honed with a minus sign. Search for “Coronavirus”-vaccine (no space between the minus sign and vaccine) will bring results that do not mention the word vaccine.

There are an infinite number of potential search strings and combinations. Search strings also allow us to search within a website for multiple words and phrases. All the search strings can be combined. For example, site:ft.com “tony blair”-Iraq will find all articles on the Financial Times website which mention Tony Blair but do not mention Iraq. One of my favourites is to search within a website for particular document types, such as pdfs or excel spreadsheets, which often turns up all sorts of interesting nuggets.

In our workshop we focus on a dozen search strings, which especially when combined, give users a powerful tool kit. 

OSINT can take you back in time to a newspaper archive from nineteenth century frontier America or France in the 1920s. OSINT can show you how to operate in any language and translate the results into English.

Adam Le Bor

How to keep your data secure

There is of course another side to Google, which highlights the ever more important issue of privacy and security on the internet.

 The old truism about free products such as search engines (and search engines are products) remains as relevant as ever: if you’re not paying for it, then you are the commodity. Or to be more precise, your data is the commodity.

If you use its products, Google knows an incredible amount about you. Google uses this information to build an advertising profile for you, based on your browsing history, your likes, dislikes and interests. Every search you carry out with Google is based on this history, meaning that the results and accompanying advertisements are customised for you personally. Don’t be flattered. That’s how Google makes money. 

So how do we step out of this non-stop cyber-surveillance and commoditisation?

The first step is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN acts as an intermediary. Normally, each time you visit a website, the website notes your IP address. The IP address is the numeric identification that your internet service provider (ISP), such as Virgin or BT, gives to your computer. When you go to a website via a VPN, the website records the VPN’s IP address.

As Google’s ever more intrusive eco-system has grown, so have the number of privacy-based search engines. The two most common are duckduckgo and startpage. Their functionality is steadily and continually improving. Neither of these will track you or store your search history. We also explore privacy and security in much greater depth in the workshop.

Join us

The skills of OSINT are simple and easy to master. All you need is to be able to use a keyboard and browser. We cannot travel much nowadays but cyberspace still beckons.

Our one-day online workshop, Internet Research for Writers, can show you how to find its hidden treasures and so boost your writing and research, while carefully ensuring your privacy and security. 

Adam LeBor

Adam LeBor is an author, journalist and veteran former foreign correspondent for several national newspapers. He teaches Open Source Intelligence at the Financial Times, Citywire and for the Society of Authors. He is the author of several critically acclaimed investigative books including a history of the Bank for International Settlements, a study of the United Nations’ failure to prevent genocide and a biography of Slobodan Milosevic. He is a tutor for the Arvon Foundation and the Moniack Mohr creative writing centre and is currently writing a detective series set in Budapest, where he lived for many years.

Internet Research for Writers

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