Commentary

The FBI Wants In On Social Media Monitoring

The country’s premiere law enforcement organization is looking to develop an early warning system for domestic and global threats drawing on information from social networks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation released details of the planned system in a request for information from private contractors who are qualified to help build it.

The FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center said the RFI was intended to determine the capability of industry to provide an “Open Source and social media alert, mapping, and analysis application solution.” As indicated here, the system would be able to scrape material from social networks about emerging threats and then superimpose the information graphically on maps, giving FBI analysts a spatial sense of the threat landscape.

Among other capabilities, the proposed system should be able to provide an automated search and scrape capability of both social networks and open source news sites; allow users to create, define, and select new keyword search parameters; display different threats on maps, color coded to distinguish the threat level, preferably including Google Maps, Google 3D maps, Yahoo Maps, and ESRI; view and plot historic and current foreign and domestic terror data “mashed with geo coordinates”; instantly translate foreign language tweets into English; and display video feeds from traffic cameras.  

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The RFI emphasizes that “flexibility is critical because the users must have the ability to select and display to a common operating picture or dashboard both unclassified open source feeds, and social media vetting and analytical tools in support of a breaking event or crisis.” The platform must also be able to “view terrorist activities by location, terrorist group, and type of attack,” and “change search parameters and geo-locate the search based on breaking events or emerging threats.”

As far as privacy concerns go, the RFI notes that “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.” Of course, U.S. government agencies like the CIA and NSA are probably also engaged in surveillance of ostensibly private social media content in at least some cases where a serious terrorist threat is felt to exist.

The FBI certainly isn’t alone is monitoring social media for security threats. The Department of Homeland Security has admitted in a public statement that it creates profiles to monitor “publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites, and message boards,” including social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, in what is known as the “Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative.” The aim is to “to provide situational awareness” for the federal, state, and local governments; the DHS “may also share this de- identified information with international partners and the private sector where necessary and appropriate for coordination.” Crucially, the DHS statement also reveals that participating agencies may reveal personally identifying information about Internet users in emergency, life-and-death situations.

The DHS is also using social networks to ferret out fake “green card” marriages between U.S. citizens and immigrants for the purpose of obtaining residency or citizenship for the latter.

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