I’ve been doing Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) gathering professionally for quite a while now – back from the days when it was just a GeoCities check to see if the subject had been ridiculous enough to create a page dedicated to their criminal enterprise (surprisingly/unsurprisingly, this was very common). However, I’ve only recently shuffled my way into the OSINT ‘scene’ which has popped up on Reddit/Twitter/forums. It’s great to see that there’s a network of people passionate about the subject area and there is a lot of great sharing and caring going on.

However, as with any community, a lot of buzzwords creep in, it starts to become a ‘club’, and newcomers flock in with wildly varying levels of experience. It’s great that things are opening up as it all adds new perspectives, but since getting involved I’ve seen a lot of people posting methodologies and suggestions which are…well pretty much just illegal. There’s no way to sugar coat it, and it doesn’t matter what jurisdiction you’re in: some of what is being shared as ‘OSINT methodologies’ fall directly into either harassment, stalking or fraud.

The main offender for this is ‘Social Engineering‘.

Social Engineering – what it is.

The Wikipedia entry for Social Engineering (the best we can get to the current consensus for the word) is:

Social engineering, in the context of information security, refers to psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. 


For anyone unsure of what Social Engineering is (which seems to be a lot of people), this video is the single best explanation:

As you can see, it’s basically lying to someone to get what you want via invoking the most holy trinity of the BLT. This is otherwise known as fraud.

Here’s the UK and the US definitions of fraud in case anyone has forgotten:

Fraud act 2006 (Section 2)

[A person commits fraud if they make…] a false representation, dishonestly, knowing that the representation was or might be untrue or misleading, with intent to make a gain for himself or another, to cause loss to another or to expose another to risk of loss.


US Code 18 (it’s a bit trickier in the US as there are many laws to choose from which cover it):

Whoever falsely and willfully represents himself to be a citizen of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

(Many more under Chapter 47, Chapter 63 and stated cases)

Lets take the UK definition and apply it to our man Crash Override. He commits a false representation straight out by saying he’s “Mr Eddie Vedder from accounting”. He knows this is untrue and misleading, and he does this for gain (to get access to the modem number). It’s pretty straight forward.

As you can see, the definition of social engineering is just fraud by another name. Now some might start arguing that ‘manipulation’ doesn’t have to involve fraud, but I honestly can’t think of a ‘manipulation’ which wouldn’t be fraudulent in some way by most legal systems.

That isn’t what *I* mean though.

In computer security discussions, the term ‘social engineering’ is well understood – it’s the phishing scams and ransomware attacks. However this term which most people seem to understand in the context of compsec, somehow gets distorted when we talk about OSINT – I’ve seen posts with things like ‘if that doesn’t work try a bit of social engineering to see if you can find out x’ or ‘I couldn’t find out anything online so I used social engineering to get what I needed’.

Now I don’t think that people are quite recommending ransomware or similar – it’s more likely one of the below:

  • The writer doesn’t really understand what ‘social engineering’ is and just uses it as a buzz word for anything from adding a subject as a friend on Facebook to holding their spouse hostage.
  • They’re using it to reference social media OSINT methodologies.
  • The writer doesn’t want to say ‘lie to them to get what you want’.

Now the first one is a distinct possibility – we’ve all heard countless people use phrases in that sort of clunky, ‘I’ve-only-heard-this-at-a-conference’ way and I feel that a lot of people are using the term Social Engineering to sound a bit more ‘exciting’. It certainly sounds cooler than ‘…and then I looked at his Facebook feed until my eyes turned into sandpaper-y cubes.’

The second I think is mostly a way for OSINT practitioners to flag up that they do ‘social media stuff’ as well as Experian checks. I’ve been to a number of conferences recently where a worried director exclaims ‘won’t someone think of the social media platforms!’ after too much talking about any other type of OSINT service (or whilst the speaker is just taking a breath) and ‘social engineering’ sounds like they know how to do the facebooks.

More than that, I think some ‘OSINT evangelists’ are also trying to push such language in a marketing sense – the whole ‘we’re willing to go to the very edge of legality/I can kill a man with my intersects alone’ vibe sells contracts unfortunately.

I know. Why is this important?

Mostly because I feel there’s a lingering misunderstanding that using the word OSINT makes you somehow exempt from the usual rules. It’s the same as the ‘if it’s on the net then I can do what I like with it’ misconception.

Everyone who has been involved in this field in a professional setting knows that isn’t the case, but unfortunately a lot of newcomers seem to believe that there’s some sort of magical get-out-of-jail-free card available under the umbrella of ‘doing OSINT’. It’s always been a problem, but using ‘criminal’ terms like social engineering in a ‘valid tactic’ sort of way starts to muddy the water more than ever.

This is compounded by a mix up of what is acceptable when hired to do security/pentesting, and what is acceptable without such a contract – this may seem obvious to some, but for newcomers it’s not. They read @OSINT_BLACK_OPS_SN1PER_HACK3R tweet ‘wasn’t getting anywhere on my new contract so did a bit of social engineering and now I’m the CEO’s dentist’ and think ‘I’m learning how to do OSINT gathering! I’ll social engineer my local gardening club and see what Margery is really up to!’

Instead of the 50k bonus and as much mouthwash as he can swig for the rest of his life, our intrepid newbie ends up having awkward bedtime chats with cellmate and fellow stalker Profusely Sweaty Greg, all the while wondering why the magical shield of ‘just OSINT’ing’ didn’t protect him.

For some, this whole post will seem all very patronising and obvious – to others, it will seem like pedantry. I understand this, and I’m not trying to say that we should jealously guard our secrets or make the community any less welcoming to newcomers, but for those who are experienced I’d really like to ask you to try to share your knowledge responsibly and throw in a quick comment the next time you see someone getting told to ‘do a bit of social engineering’.

Social Engineering – basically just fraud.

Leave a Reply