The U.S. government already contracts hundreds of intelligence analysts to sift overseas Twitter and Facebook posts. Their mission? Not to stay hip by learning about the latest #trend, but to sniff out foreign uprisings, possible terrorist attacks and more. Yet, that's clearly not enough manpower, and the government now wants an actual digital toolset that can scan the entire social media universe in one fell swoop, processing more data than humans can even chip at.
An Associated Press report states that the FBI, the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have issued a formal "request for information" from potential contractors. They're asking the private sector to come up with better ways of identifying scenarios like upheavals and emerging threats that lurk within the billions of posts each day.
"Social media has emerged to be the first instance of communication about a crisis, trumping traditional first responders that included police, firefighters, EMT, and journalists," the FBI wrote in its request. "Social media is rivaling 911 services in crisis response and reporting."
The FBI's proposed tool, a "secure, lightweight web application portal using mashup technology," would add to the government's already dodgy practice of spying on people via Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter. Two years ago an internal Justice Department document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act clearly stated that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies had undercover agents using these social mediums to browse through private information including posts, videos and photographs. The IRS also uses social media to investigate taxpayers, and just last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was found to be using social media monitoring practices similar to those currently used by the FBI.
However with the proposed universal digital social website scanner, the FBI promises that it won't be used to spy on specific individuals or groups. Instead, it will monitor publicly available information and zero in on words related to criminal activity.
"The application must have the ability to rapidly assemble critical open source information and intelligence that will allow [the FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center] to quickly vet, identity and geo-locate [potential threats to the U.S.]," the FBI states.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence wants a tool that pools everything together including web searches, Wikipedia edits and traffic webcams. The Defense Department wants a tool that tracks social media and weed out information that could affect soldiers in the field, and to counteract enemy campaigns on social networks.
Ginger McCall, director of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Open Government Project, recently spoke out against Homeland Security's social media monitoring, claiming that some of its activities had little to do with public safety. Now McCall is asking for a full investigation of the FBI's plans with the proposed social snooping tool.
"You need to be sure that there is no overreaching and that the program operates [legally]," she said.
Full government disclosure? That's a funny thought, right Mulder?