The FBI is in the market for a system that can turn data scraped from social media and news sites into useful anti-terrorist and criminal intelligence. It wants information about domestic and global threats displayed on maps "using mash-up technology," according to a "request for information" given to agency vendors last week.
The FBI's "intelligence objectives in using a social media analysis" include:
The "social media application" would be used in the FBI's Strategic Operations and Intelligence Center (SIOC) to provide early warning of events of interest to law enforcement. The federal government already monitors social media, but this application would gather and integrate more sources and types of information, including live video feeds from traffic cameras.
Routine searches for information in the new system would be automated and include only "publicly available" information, the FBI said.
Here's how the FBI expects the application to be routinely used, based on information provided to prospective suppliers (PDF):
In this scenario, SIOC watch-standers man a communications center in SIOC and monitor events around the globe and determine an appropriate notification procedure if a single event is of significance to law enforcement. SIOC must be aware of what the FBI is doing and also what adversarial persons or groups are doing in any given location. Once the notification procedures are completed and the selected event is properly logged for archival record, the event becomes dormant as far as SIOC is concerned; that is, no further action is taken and SIOC resumes routine monitoring.
Online sources the FBI wants to watch include Facebook, Twitter and major news networks in the United States and abroad. A translation capability and the ability to display content in a minimum of 12 languages is also being sought.
During a crisis, the SIOC sets up an operation specifically dedicated to the incident, providing FBI headquarters and executives with real-time information about the event. Social media, according to the FBI, "will be a valued source of information to the SIOC intelligence analyst in a crisis because it will be both eyewitness and fust response to the crisis."
Social media has emerged to be the fust instance of communication about a crisis trumping traditional first responders that included police, firefighters, EMT, and journalists. Social media is rivaling 911 services in crisis response and reporting. Intelligence analysts often will use social media to receive the first tip-off that a crisis has occurred, collect details of the crisis on scene through eyewitnesses, detect probable directions and timeframes the crisis is taking, and can even serve as evidence for investigation, thus, it is an integral part of intelligence operations at SIOC.
The FBI's request -- which it says is seeking marketing research instead of formal proposals -- was released Jan. 19, 2012. Responses are due Feb. 10.
One of the truisms of Homeland Security is that you can never win. Before something bad happens, you will be accused of doing too much and afterward you cannot possibly have done enough.
This applies fo spending, planning and, yes, monitoring social media in search of new threats. I have tremendous confidence that the morning after something bad happens civil libertarians will be strangely quiet.
That doesn't mean the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and others don't have valid points, as the government has a long history of privacy abuse. It simply highlights that the system we may wish was in place to prevent the next emergency may not be what we will actually build until after that emergency occurs. Then we predictably will have a knee-jerk response that goes far beyond what "makes sense" when cooler heads prevail.
There is also concern that while we may have some visibility into what the U.S. government is doing to monitor social media, we may have no idea what other governments and commercial interests are doing. In some ways, I fear these information-gathering projects much more than what the U.S. government would do, though your fears may be very different than mine.