THE BLOG

I Spy Occupy

10/28/2011 02:40 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011

The threat level in the United States has been raised to yellow, but this time it's not the Department of Homeland Security raising the alarm. It's a private initiative that is monitoring the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations on behalf of corporations -- called The Occupy Movement Corporate Threat Advisory.

A fusion of public relations vigilance, the latest search technology, and a dose of old-fashioned paranoia, the advisory is the creation of a private social media monitoring company called ListenLogic, that counts Fortune 500 companies and banks among its clients. According to its Occupy Threat Center, the company's "Social Listening Intelligence Center (SLIC) is actively following Occupy in open social media and has issued a threat advisory to large U.S. corporations. The Threat Center is a comprehensive resource for up-to-date information on the movement."

SLIC. Now that's slick.

In a development that seems both alarming and inevitable, this exploitation of social media to stay ahead of dissent is the beginning of an answer to the very social media phenomena that helped drive the Arab Spring, political insurgents in Iran, and now support the Occupy Wall Street protesters. It's a sophisticated form of push-back.

To some Internet observers, it's the shoe they've been waiting to see drop as corporate entities play social media catch-up with their unlimited resources and connections to traditional instruments of power.

"Look," says Columbia law professor Eben Moglen, "if you go up against Wall Street and you don't think you're being watched, what kind of idiot are you?" Moglen is founder of the FreedomBox Foundation, and he says corporate surveillance is nothing new.

Big business has long employed social media monitoring companies to track and analyze the "chatter" about their products and brands. This infrastructure is a natural tool for confronting the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The technology that protects reputations, in a world where a single complaint can go viral and seriously damage a company's image, is perfectly suited to this broader monitoring. What was originally a way to "engage consumers in a conversation" is now a potential method for preempting these new challenges to American-style capitalism and corporate influence.

The very openness of Twitter and Facebook makes them useful to corporations. ListenLogic claims it has analyzed more than one million social media posts and determined that its clients are "at risk."

They say the conversation about corporate greed and corruption has gotten decidedly louder in recent weeks. And, according to ListenLogic, it's more dangerous.

But what corporations think is dangerous does not necessarily constitute a probable cause for criminal activity. A business's definition of "threat" doesn't legally justify an invasion of privacy-and people will vigorously debate whether or not monitoring Twitter conversations qualifies -- although it might motivate some corporations to think of protesters in the same way they think of competitors that are often the target of industrial espionage.

"We used to think spying was wrong," said Moglen, "and I think that most of us still do -- including people who have been misled into believing that the only way you can have the benefits of social networking are with the inevitable downside of spying."

There are two ways to maintain control over privacy in this new world, he says. "One is we could really have rules against spying and enforce them, and the other is we could fix social networking so it isn't broken. The attempt to regulate spying is going to fail, and the attempt to make technological improvements so that spying doesn't work will succeed."

This is playing out in a new media duel that pits individual hacker protestors against sophisticated IT countermeasures from inside corporate marketing divisions. Occupy Wall Street "hackathons" in various cities have drawn together designers and programmers who are sympathetic to the movement. They are working together to build technologies that are going to further the movement, including solutions that will protect protestors' privacy, such as a cell phone workaround that lets nearby phones connect off-line like walkie-talkies, and a group chat messaging system that's hosted on a secure server.

All of this would be familiar to political critics in China or protestors in the Arab Spring countries who were confronted with the vulnerabilities of social media when government officials shut down communications, or did things like force detained activists to divulge their Facebook passwords in order to access the identities of their like-minded friends and family.

Designers and programmers there, too, have been building new ways to communicate to serve their needs more precisely than Twitter and Facebook. New platforms for communicating and engaging citizens -- that don't make them as vulnerable to corporate or government surveillance, and do spread their message widely -- are being built every day all over the world. Four-hundred-twenty-six of them, from 75 countries are sharing their solutions to support a more engaged, empowered citizenry at the Citizen Media Global Innovation competition.

FreedomBox, from Eben Moglen's FreedomBox Foundation is just one of them -- it is a small, inexpensive desktop device that keeps data and communications protected so it "can't be mined by governments, billionaires, thugs, or even gossipy neighbors." Another competition entrant, Serval, enables mobile communication for anyone, anywhere, even if they are too poor, too isolated, or too spied on to use a corporate carrier.

These innovations are proving that the democratization of information and communication is still a work in progress, and a vibrant, fast-changing one at that.

"In the world we live in now, making technology is not only the business of IBM or Hewlett Packard," said Moglen. "Communities make technology. The people doing it at Occupy Wall Street know how to clean up Zuccotti Park, and they know how to clean up the Internet. They're going to do it."