There are so many initial similarities shared by Opposition Researchers and OSINT Analysts, that they are often confused for one another within the political domain at first glance. This likely stems from their ability to utilize publicly available information to achieve their client’s objectives. However, their similarities pretty much end here.
This post will start off by highlighting the key differences between ‘Open Source Information’ and ‘Open Source Intelligence’ then compare its development with overviews of Opposition Researchers and OSINT Analysts. As always, I will provide use-cases based on my personal experiences and those of my associates, which aim to help the reader determine which they should think about hiring and when, or which they should focus on becoming.
Open Sourced: Information vs. Intelligence
Open source information or data is available to the general public, and can be collected, retained and stored without any form of special permission or payment. However, this is not to say that premium (or paid for) data fusion service providers such as TLO or NexisLexis, do not ‘fuse’ purchased data (such as meta from your phone, apps and devices like Alexa) with open source information scraped by a crawler.
These days, the primary source of open or freely sourced information comes from social media, online publications as well as forums and blogs, mainly due to the comfort and encouragement by online community members for the account holder to quickly and share first impressions, reactions and any thought that happens to come to mind. With this, meta information may also be considered open source information, in that it that it meets the criteria mentioned above. This may include (but is not limited to) data such as your geographic location while posting, other devices you were close to, and your distance, how far you were from which WiFi router and its IP address, your phone number, your search history, and much more.
Additional and often overlooked examples of open source information could also include that which is derived from professional and academic settings, such as reports, white papers and dissertations. This is typically that next layer deeper in the internet, due largely to the workload and knowledge set requirement for analysis. In other words, it’s not as easy to obtain useful information from these sorts of documents, and that which is obtained may be of the same value as the lower hanging fruit, but at a much higher cost.
Open Source Intelligence
Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is a professional product or service, prepared with specific desired results and outcomes. While much open source information may be available on a given or target, distilling this information down into a palatable report which is meaningful to decision & policy makers, as well as those who act on the output, is generally the goal of any intelligence analyst. Unlike information, intelligence also has the necessity of supporting or enhancing the effectiveness of follow up steps, each of which contribute toward a desired result.
In the political domain, open source intelligence offers its customers a unique spectrum of capabilities, ranging from preventative and defensive, to offensive.
As I’m sure the reader has witnessed many times ahead of primary and general elections; there doesn’t seem to be an end to the unsavory information pouring out about the mistakes of the candidates past. What about their families demonstrated misalignment with the candidates platform and values they are running on? What about when a scandal or criminal charge pops up in days leading up to voting day? This is because the use of Opposition “Oppo” Researchers.
Now, I know a couple of guys performing this type of activity, and they are highly effective at what they do. Generally, this involves digging up published information from the candidates past with the goal of having their client’s opponent fall out of favor with their supporters. This is not to say that they will swing the voters to the other side, but rather that the candidate’s base are less inclined express public approval or even participate in voting.
Now, keep mind that their deliverable is information is produced by ‘research’ through ‘open source information’ sources. This means that they are not producing intelligence, but rather small talking points that could fit on a YouTube short or TikTok post. Again, this is highly effective and has its place in any campaign, but do not expect anything beyond these talking points.
The majority of opposition researchers are college aged interns and volunteers using google (powerful, but not overly difficult to defeat) with few who are over 30 and paid for their services. The researchers whom I know and have worked with, typically perform this role in an almost seasonal capacity and the duration of their involvement with a given campaign can last from weeks to a couple of months – though they are compensated fairly well for the amount of time and effort they put in.
If interested in starting a career in Opposition Research, shore up your internet research skills then start attending meetings with your local Democratic and/or Republican county committees. The researchers I know attend both but are registered with none, if you want to laugh. As distinguish yourself and move up the political ladder, you may start to work with state senate, gubernatorial and federal candidates.
Open Source Intelligence is distinguished from research, and thus analysts from researchers, in that it applies the process of intelligence to create tailored knowledge, supportive of a specific objective or set of objectives. Further, in order to apply any intelligence process effectively, one would usually have more than a couple of years in a professional intelligence analysis capacity, or have received formal training then practiced for some number of hours. This is not to be taken as a “gate keeper” statement, but rather as a frame of reference for the reader to understand the expectations of the most clients.
Within the political theater and unlike the Opposition Researcher, an OSINT Analyst can contribute to a wide range of objectives over a long duration of time, though the longest duration I’ve personally experienced was 18 – 20 months. This is because the OSINT Analyst is not purely on the offense as their Opposition Research friends are (which matters more toward the end of a campaign) but can also perform analysis and assessments which enhance the privacy and security of the candidate, their family and team, in the months leading up to publicly announcing a candidacy. Generally, they are also skilled at cleaning up the type of information that a Opposition Researcher may seek to find, setting up ‘honey pots’ of false information and dead leads, as well as enhancing the candidates IT security posture.
For services of this category, I generally recommend that the prospect candidate begins either a vulnerability analysis or goes strait into privacy and security consulting, no less than 12 months in advance of announcing their candidacy.
In another post, I elaborate on Getting started with an OSINT career but if you’re looking to participate in politics, my first recommendation is training, even if you are fresh out of the intelligence community or an intelligence role in the military. A lot of the non-government and privacy entities have much to teach us as we transition to civilian world. During this time, make sure that you are shoring up your reporting, documentation and network (both IT, human and finance) mapping skills. If you are looking for a good place to start, check out my post on Training With Intel Techniques.
I also recommend that you start learning about Bash and Python scripting, as well as Linux systems. This is not because you want to become a hacker but rather that most of the tools you will use are only for Linux and run through the command line interface(CLI). Further and like myself as well as many OSINT Analysts, you will want to build scripts to automate some of the redundant tasks, build your own tools and filters. A highly automated workflow has drastically reduced time requirements and increased accuracy in my OSINT work.
The next step is gaining experience, which you can accomplish through a number of ways. There is much volunteer work you could perform on the side of your other obligations, you could apply for any number of positions on job boards or you could even approach candidates, committee’s and foundations directly. Which ever route you take, be honest with yourself and with your prospect clients as I would guess that one failure is normally a permanent black-ball from that client and their associates.
Use-Cases: Research vs. Analyst
Both the researcher and analyst serve high-impact roles in political campaigns across the United States (probably every country) and both are irreplaceable for what they do. This said and as shown above, there are a couple of key differences in their use-cases.
If in the latter, more mature phases of your campaign and you are only looking for little bits of information which your campaign can use to spin into short clips, commercials, ads or talking points; the Opposition Researcher is probably your most cost effective option. Another application for the Oppo Researcher is to produce interference for the opposing campaign, though this normally requires some experience in leading this dynamic mission set.
Normally, you can bring in a pool of interns who are go-getters and pretty handy with google for almost free (and they’ll put out signs during breaks) but the professional researcher might generate more predictable results. If asked my advice, I would advocate finding a skilled Opposition Researcher, paying 110% of their normal fee upfront, plus a 50-75% bonus based off of the impact of their products. You will need to do something to keep them vested in your projects, as Opposition Researchers (from what I’ve seen) rarely perform this activity as their full time job. I would also still used the college kids, because they’re pretty good at social media interaction, and some might even have a following.
This said, skill and experience level of the opposition researcher could matter little if their target has worked with a OSINT Analyst or privacy consultancy ahead of the campaign or ahead of announcing their candidacy. This is because the tools, techniques, and methods they deploy are part of the first (of many) pass of an OSINT Analysts, and their results have already been cleaned, concealed or redacted – ideally, many months ahead of the Oppo Researcher’s employment.
There is a strong case often made (in some circles) that many OSINT Analysts are able to produce opposition research that cuts a little deeper and can in fact ‘convince’ a candidate not to run in the first place. This is is true to an extent and partially due to their inherent adversarial approach t security, which is perhaps even amplified by their ability to automate many repetitive tasks and allowing them (in theory) to focus on multiple candidates at the same time. To be honest, I have not decided whether or not it is a good idea to write about this here.
Regardless, if ahead of announcing your candidacy or in the early planning phases of your campaign, seeking consultation with an OSINT Analyst for the following could (and usually does) have a major impact on your run:
- Sanitize digital footprint for self, family and staff
- Mitigate data collection on self and family
- Enhance privacy & security (both physical & IT)
- SWOT Analysis on political (and funding) landscape
Remember that these are very different tasks and while everyone uses the term ‘OSINT’, I’ve noticed few who serve as highly effective generalist, with the majority of my associates being highly specialized SME’s in one category of support or another.
Which to Consult
If asked my advice or it were my own campaign: I would seek an OSINT Analyst with a background in political support activity types to start a vulnerability analysis and privacy consulting on the day that I thought about running. This consultant will ‘clean’ up any loose ends floating around out there (we all have them) and help you understand which steps should be taken next and in which order. A lot of people will say: “I can buy Michael Bazzell’s book on Extreme Privacy and just do it myself.” This is true, you could – but if I were running for an office, I wouldn’t do it myself and I do this for a living. The reason for this is because my time would be tied up with other tasks.
When complete, I would have the same group begin a SWOT analysis to determine your alignment or misalignment on key issues with other politicians, foundations, non-profits, corporations and your constituents.
As you announce your candidacy, I would advocate that your OSINT consultant (if comfortable with this work) begins a complete analysis on opposing candidates on both sides of the isle, whom have announced their candidacy as well. Save this information for later use by your campaign – you will be running against all of them at first, then one of them in October/November.
In the final phases of your campaign, consider hiring an Oppositions Researcher, as they are more skilled with exploiting the day-to-day slip ups and hot-mic type information that comes out on the campaign trail, serving as a huge tactical asset.
A valid complaint these days is that our local and federal politicians barely understand the information technology field or the implications and possibilities of the data that is collected. This seems more common among those born before 1980, but is also a prevailing theme with the ‘consumer generation’, or those born around 1999. That means that it is up to you (the reader) to understand in a general sense how these variables could impact the health of your friends and family running for office at any level.
As always, I hope that you took something away from this post and that you will feel free to reach out through the Contact form here or on my social media accounts if you have any questions or want to bounce a specific use-case off the wall.