There’s no lockdown in cyberspace. We are all spending more time than ever roaming around the internet. Face to face meetings and social contact have been replaced by virtual connections through applications such as Zoom or Google Hangouts. Yet even during the Corona virus crisis we still have near-instant access to an incredible amount of human knowledge and experience.
The two essential questions about exploring cyberspace have not altered: how to find information, especially if it’s not easy to locate, and how to stay secure and private while doing so. The answers can be found in the growing field of Open Source Intelligence (OSI). OSI 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, especially to those still finding their way in the cyber-world, but they are not. OSI provides an easy to use tool-kit for everyone from a beginner to advanced researchers. It is also a growing field in the world of business. Once the basics are learnt, OSI can provide useful information on potential clients – and competitors. The key word here is Open Source – this is not about hacking or venturing into the Dark Web – the underground internet for illicit activities. Everything is out there. The question is how to find it. Once the basics are mastered, cyber-explorers can start digging deeper into more advanced OSI such as social media. Twitter, Facebook and, increasingly, Instagram, are rich resources, both for finding people such as experts in a particular field, and for mapping connections and networks.
But let’s start with the basics. How do we take a deep dive into cyberspace? One way is through the use of search strings. These are not as complicated as they sound. 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. Speech marks can also be used for multiple words or phrases, such as “Corona virus” “lockdown fatigue” and “vaccine trial”. Searches can be honed with a minus sign. Search for “Corona virus”-cure (no space between the minus sign and cure) will bring results that do not mention the word cure. 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 favourite techniques is to search within a website for particular document types, such as pdf or excel spreadsheet, which often turns up all sorts of interesting nuggets. In our forthcoming workshop we will focus on a dozen search strings, which especially when combined, will give users a powerful took kit.
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 a lot about you. Its data store includes: every search you ever carried out, the websites you accessed through that search, anything you downloaded, every event you attended if you use Google calendar and every Gmail you have ever sent or received. If you use Google Maps Google can guess where you live and how long it takes you to get from A to B. 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 your 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? Two simple tools can help us stay secure and private. The first is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN performs two functions. It 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. This does not identify you personally, but it does identify which ISP you are using and where it is located. When you go to a website via a VPN, the website records the VPN’s IP address. It does not know that you are there. As far as the website knows, the VPN has come to take a look. In addition, your data traffic to the VPN is encrypted within a secure data tunnel, for extra security, to protect against hackers. For example, you should always use a VPN when carrying out internet banking outside your home on your telephone.
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. The functionality on both is steadily and continually improving. Neither of these will track you or store your search history. Duckduckgo also has an excellent browser extension which checks every website you visit for privacy and security. Both also have easy to use phone apps, as do numerous VPNs providers.
The OSI universe is steadily growing, as are the number of privacy and security based tools and techniques. The skills of OSI 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 the cyberspace still beckons. Our workshop will show how to find its hidden treasures, while ensuring your privacy and security.
Adam LeBor is an author, journalist and Open Source Intelligence trainer.