Last week, Wired reported that In-Q-Tel, the CIA's technology arm, is investing in Visible Technologies, the social-media monitoring company, which tracks over half a million Web sites everyday. Many of the sites that the company surveys include blogs, online forums and open social networks, which can render public opinion about products and services in real time.
Yes, the CIA, which has relied on covert agents and clandestine operations for decades, is turning to the indiscreet information-sharing tendencies fostered by the Web 2.0 world to acquire real-time data. The agency is increasingly looking at open-source intelligence as a viable source of information.
What this means is that snippets from Internet postings, blogs, and social media can be used for information gathering and data mining. Intelligence agencies have relied on information from the public sphere for a few years now, be it on online discussion forums, Web sites of groups of interest, or citizen media sites. Doug Naquin, the Director of the Open-Source Center mentioned in a speech last year that user-generated content on YouTube, photo-sharing portals, and social-networking sites were all fair game.
Such information is unclassified, of course, because it is openly available to anyone with Internet access; the CIA's own search of such data and the product that results from its analysis, however, would be classified, according to Gen. Michael Hayden.
In-Q-Tel has been in the business of investing in companies, which implement innovative technologies helpful to the CIA for a decade. This is not the first time that the not-for-profit venture capital firm has shown interest in a social media monitoring company. This summer it was reported that In-Q-Tel was investing in Lucid Imagination, an open-source intelligence search provider.
Over the past few years, the CIA has been making forays into the social media sphere, as have many government organizations. In 2004, it turned to Facebook for recruits.
Two years later, it created "Intellipedia," a wiki for the intelligence community to aid sharing and gathering of information in the digital world. Intellipedia is still thriving, and articles and updates on the latest breaking news events go up on the site in real time.
Last year, the agency launched the somewhat less successful A-Space, which is sort of like a Facebook for members of various intelligence organizations, including the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA, designed to create cross collaboration and intercommunication.
While increased social media use by the government for enhanced communication is great, monitoring public information that is not authorized for such purposes raises privacy concerns. Companies have been doing it for years, of course, in order to get feedback on a new product, survey customer interest, and track trends. In addition, sites like Facebook deliver targeted ads right to user pages based on interests and activities listed on the site by users themselves.
The Obama administration has itself been making a case for Web tracking on government Web sites in order to enhance "customer service," similar to online stores. But the government is not an online store whose only interest is to sell a product. As critics point out, once such information is available to the government in one context, it can be used in others.
The Center for Democracy and Technology released a report over the summer that addresses many of the concerns that would result from Web traffic surveillance.
The benefits of social media use by government are undisputed. Many federal agencies are already using online networks to engage with and share knowledge with the public. Others are surveying the Internet to gather information on public concerns and trends.
For instance, the CDC tracked Google searches made by Internet users to observe the number of flu cases last year. AIDS.gov is using social media in remarkable ways to build an online community and better implement disease communication.
In addition, many high-ranking public officials have embraced social networks to truly connect with citizens.
On the one hand, it's good to see government agencies investing in social media tools, but on the other, it is a little worrisome to know that these same media can be used for monitoring and surveillance.
According to Wired's report, In-Q-Tel is mainly going to use Visible's services to monitor foreign social media, but who is to say? That's what we were told about wiretapping. Once the technology is permissible, who is surveyed is always going to be a slippery slope. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, Muslim Americans understandably felt targeted by Internet surveillance programs launched by the government.
This raises another important point, however. Should we be up in arms about government agencies--or anyone--utilizing information we put up voluntarily on the World Wide Web? Is such privacy possible in the Internet age? Or is it even a question of privacy, considering the information was voluntarily divulged?
Unauthorized investigations should still not be legitimate, even if the information available itself is in the public sphere. This is another one of the many gray areas that social media will need to tackle in order to balance privacy while promoting engagement.
Follow Karthika Muthukumaraswamy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KarthikaM