The FBI has raised eyebrows in the tech world with a public document that asks for advice on how to harvest information from social networking sites.
According to the document, the bureau is looking for a mapping app — or a "geospatial alert and analysis mapping application" — that, among other things, helps it search "publicly available" sources like Facebook and Twitter for national security threats.
Some other items on the FBI's functionality wish list include:
- "... instant notifications of breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats that have been vetted and meet the defined search parameters."
- "Ability to immediately access geospatial maps" that plot "US Domestic terrorist data"; "global terrorist data"; "US Embassy, consulate and military installations around the world"; weather conditions and forecasts; and "video feeds from traffic cameras."
- "Ability to instantly search and monitor key words and strings in all 'publicly available' tweets across the Twitter Site and any other 'publicly available' social networking sites/forums (i .e. Facebook, MySpace, etc.)."
- "Ability to immediately translate into English, tweets and any other open forum publicly available social media captured in a foreign language."
- "Ability to geo-locate the open source social media 'search' by setting a radius by both miles and kilometers (i.e. 5 miles, 10 miles, 50 miles radius) that will allow the user to quickly narrow the search to a specific area/region/location."
- The ability to "geospatially locate bad actors or groups and analyze their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations, and possible adverse actions"
- The ability to "develop pattern-of-life matrices to support law enforcement planning and enforcement operations"
- "... reference documents such as a dictionary of 'tweet' lingo"
Sean Gourley has worked with defense agencies in the past and now heads the intelligence firm Quid. He gives NPR's Audie Cornish one example for how the agency might use the app to monitor breaking news.
"If there's an attack that's just been carried out in north Afghanistan that they weren't aware of, there might be reports of that on the social media channels that they're watching," Gourley says. "[People] might be tweeting, 'I heard a loud bang,' or someone says, 'Maybe there's a bomb around the corner' or there are these kinds of reports. Now, each of these pieces kind of starts to form a little bit of a mosaic and they start to combine this mosaic back together to say, 'We can be pretty sure that something happened here and here's what we think it is.' "
But the FBI also specifies that it wants to use the app to "predict future actions taken by bad actors." According to Gourley, that involves creating profiles of known bad actors based on their social media presence.
"Then what they can do with that is say, 'Here's the kind of profile of somebody that we'd be potentially interested in, even if we don't know that they're already a bad actor,' " Gourley says. "I should say that this stuff is all very experimental at the moment, and by no means does it exist today."
In an email statement to NPR, the FBI said, "The application will not focus on specific persons or protected groups, but on words that relate to 'events' and 'crisis,' and activities constituting violations of federal criminal law or threats to national security."
Then there's the question of why the FBI — an agency that's usually reluctant when it comes to sharing its social media tactics — would publicly lay out its intelligence-gathering plans and then ask for civilian help in executing them. Gourley theorizes that it has something to do with the fact that these days it's easier to find qualified mathematics Ph.D.'s in Silicon Valley than it is to find them in the federal government.
"What that means is the top solutions to these kinds of problems don't actually lie within the government anymore; they actually start to lie in the startup companies," Gourley says. "So increasingly the government starts to turn to these groups to say, 'Can you help us solve these types of problems?' "