A Private Investigator's Review of the 2017 OSMOSIS Conference


OSMOSIS stands for Online Social Media and Open Source Investigation Summit.  This year’s conference took place in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina October 8-11.  It was the third annual conference, but this private investigator’s first to be in attendance.

OSMOSIS touts itself to be “North America’s most comprehensive conference for online investigators.”  With its offerings on such topics as website link analysis, OSINT techniques, smartphone data, hacking meet-up and hook-up apps, public records, hostile profiling, the dark web, and ethics, I’d say it was quite comprehensive, especially for a 2 1/2 day conference.

I am a private investigator who uses online social media and open sources in every one of my investigations, so I was looking forward to attending OSMOSIS all year.  It did not disappoint.

Who Is In Charge of OSMOSIS?

Cynthia Hetherington of Hetherington Group out of New Jersey is the creator and founder of OSMOSIS.  She chose fellow investigator, Cynthia Navarro, to mc the event.  Ms. Navarro, owner of Finnegan’s Way, was an excellent choice, keeping the conference on schedule and flowing from one speaker to the next.

The Speakers

Each speaker had 1 to 2 hours of speaking time, which was perfect for providing a wide array of topics and for keeping the audience alert and attentive.  Even the few speakers whose topics aren’t exactly in my purview were interesting to listen to and I still learned something from each of them.

Kirby Plessas spoke rapid-fire english at a pace equal to that of Vanessa Huxtable’s fast-talking friend, Kara.  But I’m pretty sure it’s just because of the wealth of information in that woman’s head that she can’t help but to squeeze as much knowledge into her audience that two hours would allow.  Ms. Plessas spoke about website link analysis and provided a huge array of resources for us.  As the first speaker, she set a high bar for the rest of them.

Josh Huff, a digital forensics analyst, had a bit of a dry delivery but spoke on OSINT techniques for social media investigations and shared a great case study with us.  He spent most of his time giving helpful tricks on investigating Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the heaviest hitters in social media today.

Amber Schroader was perhaps my favorite speaker at the conference.  She is a witty, well-spoken, superb public speaker that keeps the attention of the audience through frequent humor that I found quite endearing.  Ms. Schroader relates so well to her audience, you can’t help but to like her.  In addition to being crazy smart and a leading authority on smartphone data usage in investigations, I really just wanted to be her friend.  Although I don’t have any digital forensics experience myself, she sure hit home on the importance and value of utilizing it in investigations.  Oh, and Amber taught us all that the cloud is just someone else’s computer.

Emmanuelle Welch wrapped up our first day with the ever-so-lovely topic of hacking the meet-up and hook-up apps.  Although her presentation involved sticky content at times, simply because of the nature of the topic, Ms. Welch handled it with professionalism and ease.  Her french accent was lovely to the ears and her good sense of humor showed throughout her talk.  I learned more about Grindr, Scruff, Happn, Tinder, Plenty of Fish, OK Cupid, and Adult Friend Finder than I care to admit to anyone.  Don’t even get me started on hook-up lingo.  Eeeewww.

Mike Dores hit off day two of the conference with using public records for skip tracing and asset location.  I thoroughly enjoyed Mike’s presentation simply for the large number of resources he so generously shared with us.  Mike has been in the investigations game for a long time and has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to using public records.  He also gave some very straight advice about using proprietary databases and how they actually work.  Mike was another favorite of mine.

Paul Raffile was next with using OSINT in corporate security.  This is not a topic of particular interest to me personally, but Paul gave a dynamite case study example that was of great value to those who work in the corporate security sector.  Even though this is not my area of expertise, I still took away several valuable resources and bits of knowledge from Paul’s presentation.

Chad Los Schumacher followed with connecting the digital dots.  Again, Chad’s topic was not of particular interest to me for the most part, but it was highly interesting.  It was apparent early on that Chad is a super smart fella who does his job very well.  Accolades to him as well for stepping in last minute for a speaker who was unable to attend last minute.  And a big congratulations on his marriage that took place just days before his presentation.

David Benford ended day two with hostile profiling through OSINT and smart devices.  I loved listening to Mr. Benford speak, as he is a colleague from the UK and we all know British accents are the absolute best.  David provided some outstanding case studies and wonderful examples on how to find geographic data through open sources and the smart devices we all so readily use today.  He gave us example after example of how easy it is to unlock a person’s identifying information starting with just one or two small bits of information.  As a side, I would absolutely shut down all devices when David Benford is in the room.  Otherwise, he’ll figure a way that leads right to your doorstep in a matter of minutes.

The final day of the conference started with Jeff Bedser speaking on the dark web.  His rendering of the surface web, deep web, and dark web is something I’ll never forget.  He digested it all in a way that even the dullest of minds could understand.  Mr. Bedser’s knowledge of dark web happenings is truly remarkable.  It’s a whole other world in itself that I myself hope never to have to touch.  I admire individuals like Jeff Bedser and Chad Los Schumacher who delve into the darkness so the rest of us don’t have to.

Cynthia Hetherington ended with an hour talk on ethics in open source investigations.  I had listened to webinars and interviews with Cynthia before, but I’d never heard a live talk in person.  She is even better live than she is while I’m sitting at my computer.  Cynthia also has a terrific sense of humor and a knowledge base that is stunning.  I don’t know anyone else who could keep an entire audience engaged through a talk on ethics.  Somehow, she kept my attention and also taught me more about the law as it applies to my profession than I knew when I walked into the room.

Other Benefits

In addition to the fabulous variety of speakers, OSMOSIS gave ample time for networking and interacting with the many vendors who attended and made the conference possible.  Hot breakfasts and lunches were provided every day, as well as snacks and drinks.

On the first official day of the conference, a bits n bytes session was planned in which ten different practitioners spoke on ten different topics at round tables.  Attendees were able to sit for about ten minutes at each table of their choosing and learn from some of the best.  This was a great idea that was carried out beautifully.

So if you’re contemplating attending OSMOSIS 2018 (osmosiscon.com) in Las Vegas next year, stop riding the fence and just sign up.  It will be well worth your time, money, and travels.  I hope to see you all there!