news / Civil Society

Exploring Open-Source Intelligence in Modern Investigations


14 Mar 2024

Time was running out. Somewhere in Europe, the head of an international organized crime syndicate, a man known only as the “Shadow,” was on the run. Investigative journalists had a lead on his location but were struggling to zero in. 

“Keep things simple. Don’t overanalyze,” the instructor advised. On the table, a silver briefcase lay cracked open, and its contents—family photos, bank statements, and company records—were spread across the table.

This mysterious investigation scene is a glimpse at CEELI Institute’s inaugural Open-Source Intelligence, Virtual Currency, and Blockchain training course held in early February. For two-and-a-half days, 35 investigative journalists and civil society activists from Central and Eastern Europe took up residence at Villa Grébovka to learn how to incorporate open-source intelligence (OSINT) into their work.

The gamified training course, which included two “escape room” sessions, was taught by current and former detectives, and introduced investigative techniques, frameworks, and tools for harvesting and analyzing OSINT. It also focused on virtual currency, including cryptocurrency transactions and storage, and how to follow money on the blockchain.

“When people think about OSINT investigations, they often think that it’s only useful for law enforcement,” said Daniel Garnham, President of the Security Industry Federation and Director at Gentium UK, a security firm that conducted the training. “But it’s also great for accurate factchecking, particularly if you’re a journalist, lawyer or prosecutor.

“OSINT is the bread and butter of how to dive deep into an investigation, whether it’s war crimes or terrorism,” Garnham added.

Open-source intelligence is an increasingly essential tool for legal and journalistic investigations. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which provides free OSINT training tools and resources, explains that gathering and analyzing online information can help “identify connections and affiliations, map networks, and potentially uncover new leads.”

But just like traditional journalism, open-source investigations—criminal or journalistic—can be led astray by biased or disingenuous information. Garnham said the CEELI course was designed to help journalists identify factual data, and how to use it: “We’ve given participants new tools to better factcheck and explore stories in more detail, with new angles.”

Participants also received tips about protecting themselves online when investigating crimes or reporting from war zones or authoritarian states.

Nine countries were represented during the course, with some of the largest news outlets in the region participating—including Euronews, the Hungarian media Direkt36, the Slovakian daily newspaper Új Szó , and the first Bulgarian private national television channel bTV.

“As the great turnout for this course suggests, investigative journalists, lawyers, and prosecutors need to be skilled in open-source data collection and analysis,” shared Marianne Bajgar Aalto, CEELI Institute program organizer. “We’re happy CEELI can provide the building blocks for such an essential element of modern investigations.”

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