LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Intelligence agencies have traditionally relied on top secret information to track changes in other countries. But that did not help them predict the revolutions that have swept across the Arab world this year.
In hindsight, it appears they could have found hints of what was going to happen in open sources - online, in newspapers and broadcasts. With that in mind, researchers are looking for new ways to recognize change within societies. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston explains.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Intelligence officials are searching for new ways to understand what motivates people, not just in the Middle East but around the world. What they're discovering is that traditional intelligence tools can help, but they're limited.
Lieutenant Colonel REID SAWYER (U.S. Army): The traditional intelligence community is absolutely biased toward classified information.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sawyer, a U.S. Army intelligence officer.
Lt. Col. SAWYER: I think that open source provides a critical lens, a critical opening into understanding the world around us in a much more dynamic way than traditional intelligence sources can provide.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Open source - newspapers, local radio stations, and of course Facebook and Twitter. The problem, intelligence officials will tell you, is tapping into all of that in a systematic way.
Gabriel Koehler-Derrick is an instructor at West Point. He and another researcher at Princeton, named Joshua Goldstein, think they might have at least a partial solution. They think they can tap into the mood of a country by tracking what its citizens are searching for online. And they can figure that out by searching Google Trends.
Mr. GABRIEL KOEHLER-DERRICK (Instructor, West Point): What we did was a comparison of search terms over time, starting from the moment that the Internet was plugged back in by the government in Egypt on January 25th and moving forward for a period of about 30 days, to see what we could find out.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Google Trends is basically a way of looking at what people are focusing on by mapping their Google searches. Marketing firms have been using Google Trends for some time, and so has the government.
Back in 2009, during the swine flu pandemic, Google launched Google Flu Trends. The National Institutes of Health used to it to track outbreaks of the disease. It turns out - and this makes sense - that when people started to feel feverish and nauseous, they would go to Google to check out their symptoms. It isn't a perfect indicator, but Google Flu Trends often beat government predictions about flu outbreaks by a week or more.
Imagine using the Internet to do the same thing with political and social change.
Mr. KOEHLER-DERRICK: What I think this tool allows us to do is to get a sense for atmospherics.
TEMPLE-RASTON: West Point's Gabriel Koehler-Derrick explains its reach.
Mr. KOEHLER-DERRICK: There are approximately 16 million Internet users in Egypt. Now, this is undoubtedly a demographic that's slightly biased towards younger people. But let's put Google's market share at 10 percent, which to me seems absurdly low. That would be 1.6 million users that we have essentially surveyed for 30 days.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He searched Google using Arabic, figuring that's a better tool to measure what locals are interested in. He started by typing in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, to see how many Egyptians were following the demonstrations there. He compared the number of Google searches for Tunis with the number of Google searches for pop stars in Egypt.
Mr. KOEHLER-DERRICK: Typically, as I think you would find in the United States, pop stars kind of trump almost any search that you can think of. But actually, the searches for Tunis prior to the demonstrations that really kind of kicked off in late January were surprisingly high.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So how would intelligence agencies use this kind of information to supplement more traditional methods?
Again, Colonel Reid Sawyer.
Lt. Col. SAWYER: Imagine in Washington, D.C., when the debate was happening about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.
TEMPLE-RASTON: When the revolution unfolded in Egypt, there were concerns in the U.S. intelligence community that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political group, might come to power.
Col. SAWYER: If the decision makers could have understood how little the Muslim Brotherhood was animating the online searches inside of Egypt and the quest for information that the population had, how it might have led to different decisions or different discussions at least that were being held in the halls of Washington.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, few seemed interested enough in Muslim Brotherhood to search for them on Google.
Still, Google Trends can't predict the future. But it could be one more tool for intelligence officials who want to tap into the private conversations that could spark popular movements.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.