Career Interview with Lindsay Munford

You can connect with Lindsay on LinkedIn.

Lindsay, where do you work now and what exactly is it that you do?

I’m an open source intelligence (OSINT) specialist working in a freelance capacity for a range of clients. 

My work typically involves carrying out research, analysis, and reporting based on publicly available (but hard to find or interpret) information. 

Sometimes the requirement is narrowly defined and seeks to answer a specific question, such as verifying past employment in a due diligence context, tracing a particular asset, or establishing jurisdiction in support of litigation proceedings. At other times, the aim is to gather as much information as possible about a particular organisation or even a whole sector. 

The beauty of being a freelance OSINTer is never knowing what I’m going to be looking at next or where in the world it might take me. It could be mercenaries in Africa, a failed businessperson in Ukraine, or disinformation networks in Germany.

A native English speaker, I also work with Russian and Arabic, which I studied at university and in subsequent employment in the UK and overseas. I also do a little pure language work, including weekly pro bono translations for UK human rights NGO Rights in Russia.

Can you tell us more about the industry that you are working in?

The organisations I support cover corporate investigations, competitive intelligence, litigation finance, and government consulting. So I work in a range of sectors, and each uses open source information in a different way.

OSINT is a little like the Wild West of professional services in that it is a relatively new field and so not fully defined or regulated. 

The market for OSINT services is building fast, and everyone is carving out their own niche within it. What this means is that there are lots of interesting newly created jobs out there, and plenty of scope to define how the work is done. So you have quite a bit of freedom at the moment to chart your own path and build a rewarding career. 

However, there is some misunderstanding around what OSINT actually is, which I think stems from the variety of the work done by its practitioners and the range of skill levels involved.

Similarly, there can be a huge divergence in clients’ expectations. Some think that OSINT involves searching for keywords in a subscription database and that if there’s nothing there, then there’s no more to be done. Others expect you to be able to find private information on anything or anyone instantly. Yet others want analysis with new insights on a field they’ve worked in for decades, and you’ve only just heard of. So it’s important to understand where your client is coming from and what they expect of you.

With the advent of GDPR and trend away from sharing online (in the West, at least), the information landscape is shifting, and the industry and skills required of OSINT analysts may change with it in future. Someone has suggested that OSINT analysts are a little like digital archaeologists of the future in that we’ll have to infer a lot from the remains of people’s past lives online. I suspect that there will always be a need for online sleuthing in some form.

What skills, knowledge, and background are required to work in your industry?

The specific skills needed very much depend on the sort of work involved. I can’t code or scrape to save my life, but I can read an Arabic court decision and use the information to interrogate the UAE business register and compare archived versions of a company website. 

There is a perception that you must be a die-hard techie to work as an OSINTer, and while an understanding of how websites are built does help technically challenged investigators like me to work out when a webpage was last modified, there are plenty of tools out there that can do the job for you.

Well-honed analytical skills are very important to all types of OSINT roles. Investigative reporters and police detectives make great OSINTers. In turn, OSINT skills make for better investigative reporters and police detectives.

A good level of general knowledge is useful, as is having a specialism – depending on the project, of course.

There is a big focus in the OSINT community on tools: which sites are best for a particular task and which website is up or down at the moment. As I said above, the OSINT landscape is ever shifting, and the need to keep up with the latest changes can be overwhelming; in fact, it’s a job in itself, as many experts in the field will know. While I do try to stay on top of key developments, I don’t spend too much of my time reading up on OSINT tools and keeping all my bookmarks up to date. Instead, I maintain a core set of go-to resources and then seek out specific tools for a given assignment. 

Language skills are important, too. Google Translate is improving all the time but still contains bloopers, and it can send you down rabbit holes if not used responsibly. Fluency in multiple languages definitely helps, but if you aren’t multilingual, then having an awareness of how languages work, and the limits of machine translation, can really help.

In your view, what are the top skills/attributes to have for becoming successful in your area?

The first and most important attribute, in my view, is an investigative mindset. That means absorbing and thinking deeply about the requirement, and then applying (or inventing!) the right methodology. Discipline, intellectual rigour, critical thinking, careful note-taking, concentration, and patience are all essential. 

Self-awareness is important, too, if you’re to avoid confirmation bias and maintain objectivity. Freelance OSINTers like me tend to work mostly or entirely alone, so these qualities are key to successful investigations.

There is a great article along these lines called ‘OSINT is a State of Mind’, by Dutch Osint Guy. Although it was written a few years ago, the points made remain relevant, and I highly recommend it as a guide to OSINTers old and new.

Solid report writing skills are vital, too. The ability to distil raw findings into meaningful conclusions that directly answer the client’s questions and (ideally) tell a coherent story is a very important skill.

Where and how did you land your first job?

I was using OSINT without realising it throughout much of my early professional career. As an analyst in government for many years, I routinely drew on open source information, initially to inform my analysis and latterly as a source of reporting in its own right. 

In the months after leaving the civil service, I was introduced through contacts to a couple of small consultancies that specialised in open source research techniques and corporate investigations, and from there I began to build up a portfolio of clients – again, mainly through introductions by existing clients or other professional acquaintances.

Looking back at how you started and where you are today, what advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a similar career or even transition to the field you are working in?

I would suggest that developing a niche can help you to stand out from the crowd, whether that is having a strong professional or academic record or a distinctive skillset. 

Demonstrating a curiosity about the world and showing that you are passionate about investigations can help in early conversations.

As with many things, networking and endorsements from a well-placed colleague can make all the difference. That’s why I’m very grateful for all the help and encouragement from acquaintances that I’ve had along the way. 

There are lots of excellent resources out there, too, which will help you to build up a knowledge of the OSINT world and stay on top of developments. (See Section 4.) 

Short courses such as those run by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) or Bellingcat are a great way to pick up some tips and techniques, interact with seasoned OSINTers, and get a flavour for the sort of work that they do.

If you were to hire people in your team, what would you look for? 

They would have to have an eye for detail, self-discipline, and an inquisitive mind. They would show resilience when faced with investigative obstacles or dead ends. 

Importantly, they would have strong ethics and integrity. As an OSINTer, you are often required to delve deep into a particular person or group of people, and to work on controversial or sensitive topics. The ability to rise above the subject-matter of the investigation and keep sight of the wider regulatory and ethical context is extremely important, and I would want my team to be comprised of people who share that perspective. 

On a practical level, I would want each member of my team to bring something unique, be it deep technical know-how, legal expertise, rare languages, industry contacts, or long experience of managing investigations.

Looking at your career, is there anything you would do differently today if you had the chance to travel back in time?

Firstly, I would seek out an even wider range of clients at an earlier stage of my OSINT career. The most rewarding part of my job today is getting to work on lots of different types of projects from month to month, which enables me to develop old skills and learn new ones, and to work with lots of different people.

Secondly, I would have taken more courses such as those I mention above, at an earlier stage in my career. I prioritised finding work and accepting every assignment over training. I suspect that I could have saved some time by picking up a few tips and tricks in short courses early in my OSINT career, rather than working it all out later on in the field through trial and error.

I would also have prioritised building a network of contacts from the get-go to act as a trusted sounding board or source of expertise.

Where and how do you develop yourself professionally?

The OSINT community is very collaborative and open to knowledge sharing. I follow various thought leaders and experts on social media – Twitter is particularly good for this – and, when time allows, set aside time for self-study. 

Honestly, though, now that I have a good deal of experience under my belt, I do my best learning on the job, by accepting a range of challenging projects, getting exposure to new territories and topics, and working with new clients, who each have their own approaches to research and investigations.

Are there any websites, books, podcasts, or anything else that you would recommend for professional development (does not have to be OSINT related)?

There’s a wealth of great resources out there. Someone at Bellingcat recently put together a useful summary – First Steps to Getting Started in Open Source Research. In particular, I would second the tip to create a separate Twitter list of key OSINT researchers. I find it a great way to dip in and out when I get a spare five minutes.

Michael Bazzell’s Open Source Intelligence Techniques (now in its 8th edition) is indispensable as a reference guide – it’s a bit of an OSINT bible. Journalism resources can be very helpful. I mentioned the CIJ. The New York Times, Tools for Reporters, Paul Myers, and First Draft also have some great resources on their websites. Academic sources are worth exploring, too. The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, for one, runs some good training. Finally, you can’t go wrong with a subscription to The Economist or Financial Times.

[End of interview]

Note: this interview has not been edited.