Wired‘s defense dude, Noah Schachtman, has a fascinating story about Google and the CIA being joint investors in a web monitoring firm. Both Google Ventures and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s investment arm, have injected sums (less than $10 million each) into Recorded Future, a company that goes through “tens of thousands” of websites and looks for related actions and conversations between, for example, Twitter accounts, blogs and websites, and analyzes them in order to spot events and trends as early on as possible.
Describing its analytics as “the ultimate tool for open-source intelligence,” Recorded Future markets itself towards corporations and brands, but it’s also got one very large foot in the counter-terrorism field–which is what makes it so attractive to In-Q-Tel. The firm’s CEO is an ex Swedish Army Ranger who holds a PhD in Computer Science, and he says that what sets Recorded Future apart from other analytics firms is “you can actually predict the curve, in many cases.”
As well as the “business intelligence” side to the firm, there’s a real feeling of Minority Report, here. It sounds like the kind of tool that will be used to predict crimes and terrorist activity as well. Analytics are already being used by the Memphis Police Department, whose Operation Blue CRUSH uses predictive analytics by IBM.
Now, at first glance, it looks like the hardest thing that Google is going to have to deal with is the way this (coincidental, or accidental, surely) hook-up with the CIA looks. The PR is going to be mighty tricky–I mean, try explaining this to Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson, as the potential for consumer data leaks is significant, not to mention Google’s increasing presence in governmental bodies. Now that yet another connection has been established between the “one-trick pony” (as Schmidt described Google to the Wall Street Journal yesterday) there may be calls to establish a Chinese wall so that Google’s user data isn’t shared with the guys with earpieces. That is, assuming that the two investors are actually using the service rather than just being vanilla investors.
Not only is the White House close to Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, but it’s leaning towards the idea of granting the FBI powers to force firms such as ISPs to hand over an individual’s data. However, for all the intelligence agencies’ fanatical interest in technological tools that, while plowing through the idea of individual privacy, seem (to them) to be the only way of tackling the increasing security issues both at home and abroad, there is one thing to remember, as Charles Homan’s piece in Foreign Policy this week shows.
For all the hi-tech know-how, the only way of really proving that the intel gathered is bona fide is common sense. And, rather like FIFA’s stance on technology in football (although the CIA is much more pro than Sepp Blatter ever will be) the ultimate decision needs to be made by an individual, not an algorithm. Gut instinct still trumps tech.