Elon Musk vs OSINT: A new round of internet intelligence roles
Elon Musk has been in the news for the past couple of months following his acquisition of Twitter, one of the largest social media networks in the world. In his most recent controversy, Musk took an aim at the OSINT community, which quickly turned into a polemic.
The “war” between Musk and the internet intelligence community is increasingly demonstrating a clash of interests in cyberspace. Without intending to defend either party, the Musk case opens a perspective to the negative effects that could potentially occur as a result of OSINT’s privacy disclosures.
Flight tracker application
This all started when Jack Sweeney built ElonJet in 2020. ElonJet is an automated Twitter bot that provides real-time information about Musk’s jet flight times and whereabouts, gleaned from public flight tracking and transponder data.
In fact, flight tracking sites have long been publicly available for aviation enthusiasts. And Musk is not the only famous person whose jet is tracked.
What’s changed in recent years is that it’s easier to access and disseminate this information to the world — using social media like Twitter, for instance.
While the Twitter account was reliable for Musk’s investors, followers, and critics to find out his whereabouts, since the beginning, Musk had considered its real-time updates a serious issue that put his and his family’s safety at risk.
On Wednesday, 14 December 2022, Musk banned ElonJet, as well as Sweeney’s personal accounts and all of his other profiles. The journalists’ accounts that shared his real-time jet information were not exceptions.
In consequence, Musk has been facing backlash from the OSINT community. Critics labeled him a hypocrite for suspending the tracking and journalist accounts, given his repeated claims that protecting “free expression” would be his top priority as Twitter CEO.
The double-edged sword
ElonJet is an application that makes use of OSINT. Object-tracking is done by accessing flight sources or other transponder data.
Not just ElonJet, Sweeney also tracks Russian oligarchic boats and assets on Twitter, through RussiaYacht and RUOligarchJets. Both accounts were suspended as well.
From a different angle, OSINT is seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, publicly available data can be valuable information for the public.
In this case, journalists, experts, and researchers have used Twitter as an OSINT Platform — from monitoring Russian oligarchs and investigating missing planes (like in the case of MH370 and Ukrainian flight PS752), to hunting down international crime syndicates.
For business, OSINT has grown in importance as a tool to gain insight into target audiences, competitive environments, as well as due diligence.
However, Musk’s concern over ‘personal safety risk’ is an inherent trade-off for OSINT. As former President of the US Barack Obama stated, “you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience”.
Thus, on the other hand, publicly available information can be used by culprits to scam or threaten others. For instance, a nefarious hacker can use phone numbers or emails obtained from social media as part of their phishing targets. Or the same information can be used by a hacker to identify and exploit a company’s cybersecurity weaknesses.
In the end, OSINT is inevitable and becomes a treasure trove for many industries which, however, requires expertise and prudence in utilizing.
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