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I work for a private-sector boutique intelligence company, Brasidas Group, where we assist clients in the global marketplace to navigate the operating environments of interest and mitigate any potential risks associated with their interests. Brasidas Group is a full-service intelligence company that covers everything from basic due diligence and reputational inquiries, to complex financial investigations, asset tracing, litigation support, market entry studies and highly specialized on-the-ground investigations in high-risk jurisdictions.
My work focuses on collecting and processing activity-based intelligence utilized to discover relevant patterns, contextualize specific information or the lack of it, and answer the “why” part in different business and political scenarios. As a senior specialist in a private intelligence company, I help identify and employ different streams of intelligence collection methods, including open source intelligence (OSINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT).
While my work primarily focuses on qualitative intelligence, I bridged it with quantitative intelligence when we began collecting and processing large sets of unstructured data. My most involved projects include compiling open-source data on different individuals and high-risk groups to create red flags systems.
These systems are meant to prevent exposure to sanctioned individuals and their networks, as well as limit the risk of associating with individuals and companies linked with IP theft and fraud. As this information is usually disseminated and at times challenging to diffuse, OSINT skills enable me to efficiently collect and process it. As such, I get to wear many hats – from data scientist to social engineer.
I want to use this opportunity to demystify business intelligence, as this industry is an integral part of identifying red flags and understanding what business deals can go sour and why. While it is frequently plagued as aggressive in collection methods, the private sector intelligence is a strong barrier for corrupt individuals looking to enter the global financial system.
Moreover, when businesses or individuals have fallen victim to crime in remote jurisdictions, private sector intelligence can be one’s best bet for retrieving assets or preserving reputation. In all of these scenarios, Brasidas Group leverages its extensive network of local experts to navigate complex bureaucracies, languages, and other country-specific nuances, which is our core strength.
What makes qualitative business intelligence unique is that you do not necessarily have to come with a background in law enforcement. For example, experts from various sectors, including compliance, IT, social sciences, and philology, are finding their way in this industry as intellectual curiosity is its driving force.
Meanwhile, as there is an increasing amount of information available on OSINT techniques, my concern is that many people will fall down the rabbit hole of trying to learn them all. My advice is to stick with the basics:
PS – have a basic understanding of how to conduct searches safely – digital dust can quickly alert the subject of your investigation that someone is looking into them, so make sure that you consult a cybersecurity expert on how to set up a “safe search environment.” My advice is to run a virtual machine, and you can easily find OS boxes with OSINT tools pre installed.
I would say that these are the three points to consider in order to become a competitive intelligence analyst:
As discussed above, every investigation is fuelled by questions and the curiosity to understand and attempt to answer why certain things are happening the way they are.
Moreover, establish a strong rapport with the client – make sure that you are clear on the deliverables and ensure that the communication and information flows both ways – there are times when the client already has some information that would aid the investigation, so make sure to ask. It is also important to remain neutral and be mindful of any bias you might develop towards an idea based on the client-provided information.
The second point that many people miss out on is how to effectively present intelligence. Invest in a good writing course and learn how to present analysis in a neutral and easy-to-follow way. My best tip is to learn BLUF (bottom line up front) and use it to minimize situations where critical pieces of information are “buried” in the report.
Lastly, when investigating certain topics, it is easy to lose focus and fall victim to certain ideas and agendas – simply put, fall into a conspiracy mindset. Many people fall for conspiracies because the internet enables you to corroborate almost any argument, and most conspiracies will focus on your emotional intelligence to provoke an idea.
Targeting emotions is why we saw an increase in fake news and its effectiveness during the COVID 19 pandemic – remember dolphins in Venice and the story about pollution?
Cognitive bias is something that I have had to cope with and that has significantly impacted some of my research and writing. I worked around it by thinking about what triggers me emotionally and knowing when the “ AHA “ moments happen. I realized that the “ AHA “ moment is when I would begin to slip into biassed territory.
Cognitive bias is also impacting IT experts, which makes the code flawed right from the beginning – this is why I think that AI and automated investigation software often fail.
I began my career as a representative of investment potentials of my hometown, Zrenjanin, Serbia, during my studies in London, UK. As I was trying to build up my professional network and wanted to add some weight to my profile, I emailed the local authority and asked them if they would give me a lobbyist certificate if I promoted them in the UK. I later worked with the mayor’s office to help facilitate FDI in the city, and this is how I got into the concepts of due diligence, sanctions, and transnational crime. As the city was handing out enticing financial subventions to foreign investors, I found it astounding how many corrupt individuals approached us, which led me to join a private-sector intelligence company.
I’ll reemphasize – start from the basics. Take a course from a reputable provider of OSINT training, and don’t burden yourself with other resources initially. OSINT experts walk a thin line between data scientists, cybersecurity professionals, and journalists – all of these skills can aid you, but it quickly becomes exhausting to follow and learn all of them. Set the foundation with the basics and see in which direction your career takes you.
Another suggestion would be to keep up with emerging and popular social media, forums, messaging services, blog sites, and mobile applications – build dummy accounts and maintain these profiles (there might a time when being convert online becomes close to impossible). With this, have a good knowledge of idioms, colloquialisms, slang – collect and store this as you go, building a proprietary online dictionary.
OSINT analysts in Brasidas Group integrate disparate data, analyze, and produce open-source intelligence in response to priority intelligence requirements on political, military, financial/economic, social, criminal, or counterterrorism issues. We look for people who are capable of analyzing unstructured data collected from numerous sources and news outlets, while taking into account each source's unique biases.
In addition, our employees need to be able to properly contextualize the lack of information they will inevitably be faced with from time to time.
I would have gotten involved in crypto/blockchain earlier. Not because of the financial gains but the knowledge that they carry. As we live in a digitalized world, I see them as the future of finance.
I began my OSINT journey through courses by Toddington International, as well as Michael Bazzell’s books – I still resort to both when I am looking to advance my skills. Additionally, OSINT Curious and Bellingcat are definitely my go-to blogs when looking for specific tips and tricks. I also occasionally scroll through Twitter in search of potentially useful OSINT tools.
I have recently begun reaching out to experts asking for recommendations on interesting courses and training. In this way, I have received some training recommendations that are usually reserved for law enforcement and other government agencies.
I would recommend Toddington’s courses for OSINT – they are relatively affordable and offer a good insight into specific investigative matters. During the peak of the pandemic, they also held webinars that are available on Youtube for free, and are an excellent resource: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAqnnQkeSVTC3ZJ7urNiD8Q/videos
Additionally, regularly check in with OCCRP network and Offshore Leaks and their investigations on different topics.
Subscribe to Intelligence Online, they will give you a pretty good insight into the intelligence community and events “behind the curtain.”
Build a Twitter deck with professionals who post about the topics that you are interested in – I personally follow around 25 people/organizations that post mainly about OSINT.
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