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FBI Wants New App to Wiretap the Internet

(January 26, 2012)

Published on Thursday, January 26, 2012 by Common Dreams

FBI Wants New App to Wiretap the Internet

'Scraping' social network postings including Facebook and Twitter

- Common Dreams staff

The FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center (SOIC) posted a 'Request for Information (RFI)' online last week seeking companies to build a social network monitoring system for the FBI. The 12-page document (.pdf) spells out what the bureau wants from such a system and invites potential contractors to reply by February 10, 2012.

It says the application should provide information about possible domestic and global threats superimposed onto maps "using mash-up technology".

It says the application should collect "open source" information and have the ability to:

  • Provide an automated search and scrape capability of social networks including Facebook and Twitter.
  • Allow users to create new keyword searches.
  • Display different levels of threats as alerts on maps, possibly using color coding to distinguish priority. Google Maps 3D and Yahoo Maps are listed among the "preferred" mapping options.
  • Plot a wide range of domestic and global terror data.
  • Immediately translate foreign language tweets into English.

It notes that agents need to "locate bad actors...and analyze their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations, and possible adverse actions". It also states that the bureau will use social media to create "pattern-of-life matrices" -- presumably logs of targets' daily routines -- that will aid law enforcement in planning operations.

* * *

New Scientist magazine reports today:

"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" -- Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier FoundationThe 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 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 BBC reports:

"Social networks are about connecting people with other people - if one person is the target of police monitoring, there will be a dragnet effect in which dozens, even hundreds, of innocent users also come under surveillance" -- Gus Hosein, Privacy InternationalThe FBI issued the request three weeks after the US Department of Homeland Security released a separate report into the privacy implications of monitoring social media websites.

It justified the principle of using information that users have provided and not opted to make private.

"Information posted to social media websites is publicly accessible and voluntarily generated. Thus the opportunity not to provide information exists prior to the informational post by the user," it says.[...]

The London-based campaign group, Privacy International, said it was worried about the consequences of such activities.

"Social networks are about connecting people with other people - if one person is the target of police monitoring, there will be a dragnet effect in which dozens, even hundreds, of innocent users also come under surveillance," said Gus Hosein, the group's executive director.

"It is not necessarily the case that the more information law enforcement officers have, the safer we will be.

"Police may well find themselves overwhelmed by a flood of personal information, information that is precious to those it concerns but useless for the purposes of crime prevention."

* * *

The Fierce Government website reports on 'refining raw social media into intelligence gold':

The notion that the future can be predicted by trends expressed in collective social media output is one that has gained increased currency in academic writing. A January analysis (.pdf) published by the Rand Corp. of tweets using the #IranElection hashtag during 2009 and early 2010 found a correlation between appearance of swear words and protests. The study also found a shift that indicated the protest movement was losing momentum when swearing shifted from curses at the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to curses at an opposition figure.

A March 2011 paper published in the Journal of Computational Science (abstract) also posited that movements of the Dow Jones Industrial Average could be predicted to an accuracy of 86.7 percent by changes of national mood reflected in Tweets. According to The Economist, British hedge fund Derwent Capital Markets has licensed the algorithm to guide the investments of a $41 million fund.

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