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Government Spies to Monitor Tweets, Blogs

Written by Steven Yates on October 20 2009.

Such material is called open source intelligence. Last year, Wired referred to this as “spook speak for tidbits taken from newspapers, internet postings, and TV shows.”

Visible Technologies crawls over half a million Web 2.0 sites per day. It scrapes more than a million posts spread across a multitude of online forums, social networking sites, and other places on the Internet where members of the public can sign up and post opinions or reviews or homemade videos. These include Twitter, Flickr, Amazon.com, YouTube, and many others.

The company software “scores” the posts, videos, etc., according to such criteria as how influential the author is, which can be determined by gauging the number of unique “hits.” The score can be positive, negative, mixed, or neutral.

In-Q-Tel is particularly interested in foreign online media, giving the intelligence community “early-warning detection on how issues are playing internationally,” as Visible Technologies spokesman Donald Tighe puts the matter.

The arrangement between In-Q-Tel and Visible Technologies will improve the latter’s foreign language capabilities, which already include Spanish, French, Arabic, and nine other languages.

None of this is to say Visible Technologies is uninterested in online activities in the “homeland.” Its domestic clients include AT&T, Dell, Microsoft, and Hormel — for whom the company monitors animal rights online campaigns.

Those critical of such practices fear that information gathered through the activities of private companies could be abused even if it is “open source.” It would be easy to compile information on political figures, activists, journalists, bloggers, and other writers deemed “outside the mainstream.”

Thus far, the Wired report states, private postings on Facebook have been spared. At least at present, you can set up your Facebook account so that your posts, links, etc., are only visible to your “friends.”  Can Facebook’s “safe haven” status survive rapidly advancing technology, though — including technology able to burrow past social networking sites’ “privacy” settings? The motivation for doing so certainly exists! 

According to Lewis Shepherd, former senior technology officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, “Facebook says that more than 70 percent of its users are outside the U.S., in more than 180 countries. There are more than 200 non-U.S., non-English-language microblogging Twitter-clone sites today. If the intelligence community ignored that tsunami of real-time information, we’d call them incompetent.”

There are now more than 300 million Facebook users worldwide. If just 30 percent of those are Americans, that translates into 90 million American users — not too far shy of a third of the population. Unquestionably among those users is plenty of communication that would interest government spooks.

This might make it a good idea to be sure you really know the people you add as “friends,” and that your “friends” are who they say they are.

Steven Yates earned his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1987. He is the author of one book, Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994) and numerous articles both in academic journals and elsewhere. He has taught philosophy at Clemson University, Auburn University, Wofford College, the University of South Carolina, Southern Wesleyan University--Columbia, and Midlands Technical College, and has held fellowships with or worked on projects with the Institute for Humane Studies, the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, and the Acton Institute for Religion and Liberty.

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