The FBI wants to step up their monitoring of social media. Earlier this month the bureau posted a Request for Information (RFI) from potential vendors for a powerful, custom-designed social media monitoring app. However, the most worrying thing isn't that the FBI wants to scrape social media data from terrorists' Twitter feeds, it's that they don't already have a dashboard with these capabilities.
In the RFI, the FBI described their dream software suite in terms that would chill most privacy activists. Various departments at the bureau (cybercrime, anti-terrorism, etc.) would be able to create specific social media and search engine alerts that would be keyed to a Google Maps-style geospatial map. The map (and other stand-alone features within the suite) would also contain information on weather, traffic, domestic terrorist intelligence, and foreign terrorist intelligence. Using the software suite, agents could instantly create spot reports. Agents would also be able to conduct real-time monitoring of public messages/posts on social networks including Twitter, Facebook, and, adorably, MySpace.
The end result is something out of the television show 24. In the proposal, the FBI talks repeatedly about the need to monitor open source intelligence—a fancy buzzterm for publicly available information such as Twitter posts, newspaper articles, television broadcasts, and television programs. Analysis of content from foreign publications and broadcast networks has been a mainstay of U.S. intelligence agencies; apparently, it is something of interest to the FBI too.
Meanwhile, the fact that the FBI has requested information from vendors about building this software does not mean that it's a done deal. RFIs are preliminary steps that alert government contractors to potential projects; it will be some time before this software (if approved) makes its way onto FBI computers.
Data scraping has been a favorite tool of the FBI for quite some time. According to civil rights groups such as the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the bureau has routinely made large bulk purchases of consumer spending data and demographic information datamined from the Internet. These purchases are intended to get around provisions largely prohibiting the FBI from spying or intelligence-gathering on domestic targets without warrants or due suspicion. In 2007, it was revealed that the FBI even data mined Middle Eastern grocery store sales records; the FBI would not disclose if any arrests occurred due to their monitoring of ethnic food stores. The FBI also solicited bulk information from telephone companies. Apart from tracking down suspected terrorists, it's believed the FBI mined bulk data in search of, among other crimes, credit card fraud and car theft.
The fact that the FBI is even searching for a social media monitoring dashboard, however, is puzzling. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of how nearly every activity on the Internet is monitored, analyzed, and repackaged for a host of companies whose market-driven spy apparatuses are scarier than anything the government has to offer. In the past 10 years, the market research and Internet marketing industries have commissioned plenty of sophisticated analysis software with Big Brother-ish capabilities. The puzzling coda is that market researchers and analysts, working for private corporations, snoop on Americans' online activities far more effectively than the FBI themselves.