Marketplace Scratch Pad

Hello CIA, glad you could join me

Scott Jagow Oct 20, 2009

I’m not sure how the CIA will rate this blog post, but I doubt I’ll raise too many red flags. The spy agency’s investment arm is reportedly pouring millions into a company that monitors blogs and social networking sites.

The story comes from Wired Magazine:

In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA and the wider intelligence community, is putting cash into Visible Technologies, a software firm that specializes in monitoring social media. It’s part of a larger movement within the spy services to get better at using “open source intelligence” — information that’s publicly available, but often hidden in the flood of TV shows, newspaper articles, blog posts, online videos and radio reports generated every day.

Visible crawls over half a million web 2.0 sites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, online forums, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. (It doesn’t touch closed social networks, like Facebook, at the moment.)

Visible’s customers get feeds of what’s being said, plus ratings on whether posts are positive or negative, neutral or opinionated, influential or not.

The company already has quite a few clients in the business world. For example, the maker of Spam (the meat, not the email) is using Visible to monitor what animal rights activists are saying about Hormel.

While it sounds scary that the CIA is watching, this stuff is, of course, out in the open already. It’s how the information might be used that could be a problem:

“Anything that is out in the open is fair game for collection,” says Steven Aftergood, who tracks intelligence issues at the Federation of American Scientists. But “even if information is openly gathered by intelligence agencies it would still be problematic if it were used for unauthorized domestic investigations or operations. Intelligence agencies or employees might be tempted to use the tools at their disposal to compile information on political figures, critics, journalists or others, and to exploit such information for political advantage. That is not permissible even if all of the information in question is technically ‘open source.'”

Whew, what a fine line that is.

But as far as just collecting the data, wouldn’t the CIA be remiss if it didn’t do this? Wired says the CIA’s investment will likely be spent on boosting Visible’s tracking capabilities of foreign social networks.

Former Defense Intelligence Agency technology officer Lewis Shepherd says it this way:

If the intelligence community ignored that tsunami of real-time information, we’d call them incompetent.”

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