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SOCMINT - The Benefits And Challenges Of Social Media - Part I

To an online investigator, social media is a goldmine. As companies such as Google, Meta and Microsoft encourage users to share more to grow and improve social media platforms, billions of people worldwide willingly accept this, and surrender their personal information. Highly revealing details are posted every minute on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok, as users seek to share content with their friends and family. If a user shares frequently, within a few minutes an investigator can be provided with unparalleled insight into an individual’s life without using any intrusive methods – relying only on information that is willingly submitted into the public domain.

Social media intelligence, or SOCMINT, is the information that an analyst collects and analyses from social media to aid an investigation. Most users of social media are adept at collecting information from someone’s profile to learn more about them, from noticing a new acquaintance has mutual friends with someone, to identifying a colleague who attended the same university. To everyday users of social media, this information is valuable to inform social interactions, while to an investigator it can be useful intelligence to build up a profile of a subject.

SOCMINT can help create a thorough network analysis of an individual or group, gaining an understanding into their lifestyle habits, social circle and opinions. Social media accounts can also provide key biographical data, such as date and place of birth, educational background and career history. LinkedIn is a great example of this - information posted on this platform often includes the user's location, career and educational history, and since it has been submitted by the individual themselves it can be a particularly useful source.

Pictures and videos are a great way for people to show their friends and family what they are up to, where they have travelled and locations that they love. However, an online investigator can analyse these images and videos to identify a person’s current location, a place they frequent or a restaurant they regularly visit. These crucial bits of data can provide analysts, or adversaries, an important insight into habits, routines and locations of not only the subject, but their family and social circle. Geo-tagging images is often used by people when uploading images or stories to their profile which provides real time intelligence – placing them at a specific location or allowing analysts to identify the town, city or country the picture or video was taken.

The challenges of SOCMINT

The proliferation of the internet has caused the quantity and availability of open-source data to skyrocket, often making collection a considerable task. If a subject has the same name as thousands of other users, an investigator faces the challenge of painfully sifting through irrelevant profiles or, if the user is a prolific poster, the investigator is faced with copious amounts of data to triage in order to identify any relevant information.

Amidst the billions of social media accounts across the globe many are alias accounts which individuals have created for any of a number of reasons, including to prevent investigators from finding them. An alias can simpy mean a person using their middle name or nickname, initials or maiden name, or it can mean creating a whole new false identity. On these profiles there is often minimal information, with no corroborating data such as date or place of birth, educational institution or nationality, but some go as far as inputting false information to further obfuscate positive identification.

The constant creation of new social media platforms also means that investigators have to continue learning new ways to retrieve information relevant to the investigation and keep up-to-date with the latest apps.

But while OSINT investigative tools have developed to help researchers tackle this challenge, what does an investigator do if there is no data publicly available online about an individual? Read part II to gain an insight into some of the mechanisms analysts and investigators can use to identify information on social media.


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