U.S. Government’s Open Source Center Uses Power of Social Media to Track Political Unrest

Have you ever thumbed out a tweet or Facebook post thinking to yourself, ‘this is so narcissistic, no one will ever read this or care about it if they do’?  Maybe not, or maybe you’re so into yourself that you don’t care.  Well, the good news, someone is reading your posts and tweets and they DO care.  The bad news is that the person reading and caring (probably) isn’t that girl who sat next to you in high school chemistry, she’s a CIA analyst.  Don’t worry, though, she’s just trying  to find out if you might be part of a possible revolution.

The CIA’s new Open Source Center, self-dubbed the “Vengeful Librarians” (which doubles as a great name for indie rock band) is actually focused on people living outside of the United States, since there’s that pesky Constitution and executive order barring the CIA from spying on U.S. citizens, at least on U.S. soil.  That should keep some conspiracy theorists from getting too riled up, but the fact remains that the technology and infrastructure to monitor 5 million tweets a day exists, so let your paranoia do what it will.  What do the American get from all this monitoring?  Quite a bit, really.

As is clear to anyone who has visited the Middle East, the people there are as addicted to texting, tweeting and social media as your average 14-year-old.  The focus of the project is to look for trends that might shape the next geo-political conflagration.  Think about how much power social media played in Iran’s Green Revolution or the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.  As millions of people communicate with their friends and groups, the aggregation of this information begins to tell a story.  It’s all about looking at the big picture.  Few people would find one individual’s Google search queries about fevers and nausea particularly interesting, but collectively they can help Google create a real-time influenza outbreak map up to two weeks faster than the CDC.

The same goes for popular discontent.  When 20 retweets becomes 20,000 retweets, you definitely know something’s up.  The analysts tasked with this job realize how important it can be to spot these developments so the government can prepare to respond.  Egypt’s revolution caught many foreign policy officials off guard, causing them to spend a few slow days trying to calculate whether or not to withdraw support from their close, but dictatorial, ally.

Is there much to worry about here in the U.S.?  As I mentioned above, the Open Source Center operates under close scrutiny to protect citizens from domestic spying by the CIA.  Even if it was reading the tweets of Americans, what’s the big deal?  The Library of Congress is already archiving all tweets.  Facebook, Google and every other tech company are combing through your search history and posts and mining them to improve ad delivery.  What’s the difference between private companies and the government?  Only a tiny group of people ever gets outraged at the whittling of privacy protections by Facebook, so why should it be different for law enforcement to watch publicly available posts on the Internet?  It’s one thing to listen to private conversations or read private email (which I’m sure the NSA does already (hey guys)), but things people voluntarily share should be fair game.  I doubt even the ACLU would see this as a major breach.  And compared to all the commercial snooping, like Facebook’s cookie that tracks your web history even when you’re logged out, at least the government is reined in by the Constitution.  The only question is, what would be the goal of such monitoring?  To prevent or intercept undesirable protests?  Would the police get a tip if a flash mob like the one planned for the San Francisco BART was being organized over Twitter?  How much privacy should we expect?  Is there such a thing as aggregate privacy, as an extension of the freedom of association? Where should such a line, if any, be drawn?

About Justin Kwong

An attorney in the Twin Cities and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law where I teach a seminar on the law of virtual worlds.
This entry was posted in International News, Mobile Devices, Privacy, Rights and Civil Liberties, Social Networks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to U.S. Government’s Open Source Center Uses Power of Social Media to Track Political Unrest

  1. As you indicated, this is far less about creating individual files about individual people. Unless they are viewed as a leader or potential contact in these situations, they have better things to do. Most of this information is probably used gain or maintain situational awareness.

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