By Jim Giles, consultant
New Scientist/25 January 2012
(Image: Patrick George/Ikon Images/Getty)
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has quietly released details of plans to continuously monitor the global output of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, offering a rare glimpse into an activity that the FBI and other government agencies are reluctant to discuss publicly. The plans show that the bureau believes it can use information pulled from social media sites to better respond to crises, and maybe even to foresee them.
The information comes from a document released on 19 January looking for companies who might want to build a monitoring system for the FBI. It spells out what the bureau wants from such a system and invites potential contractors to reply by 10 February. The bureau's wish list calls for the system to be able to automatically search "publicly available" material from Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites for keywords relating to terrorism, surveillance operations, online crime and other FBI missions. Agents would be alerted if the searches produce evidence of "breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats".
Agents will have the option of displaying the tweets and other material captured by the system on a map, to which they can add layers of other data, including the locations of US embassies and military installations, details of previous terrorist attacks and the output from local traffic cameras.
The document suggests that the bureau wants to use social media to target specific users or groups of users. It notes that agents need to
The use of the term "publicly available" suggests that Facebook and Twitter may be able to exempt themselves from the monitoring by making their posts private. But the desire of the US government to watch everyone may still have an unwelcome impact, warns Jennifer Lynch at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. Lynch says that many people post to social media in the expectation that only their friends and followers are reading, which gives them "the sense of freedom to say what they want without worrying too much about recourse," says Lynch. "But these tools that mine open source data and presumably store it for a very long time, do away with that kind of privacy. I worry about the effect of that on free speech in the US".
The document also suggests that the FBI thinks it can use social media to peer into the future. It notes that agents need to use social media to
The bureau declined to immediately comment on how this analysis might work, or on any other aspect of the document, but the idea of turning agents into digital soothsayers is plausible: researchers working at Facebook and in academia have shown that social media can be used to infer many things about an individual, including the existence of friendships that are not declared on social networking sites and the location of users who have not revealed where they are based.