Social Media Intelligence

One of the most powerful tools in the modern intelligence agency’s arsenal is the use of public sources of information to gather, store, and analyze data. Indeed, given today’s “public display” mindset in which an individual posts steady updates on their lives, it would be foolish not to pursue intelligence in social media. However, it is also a case in which agencies must be careful as the ability to gather and analyze information has far outstripped the law, and such data collection exists in a murky, grey area in terms of balancing the rights of the individual with the needs of society.Very recently, General Kieth Alexander (director of the National Security Agency) publicly admitted that the agency is data mining Facebook and Twitter accounts, and using the information gathered to “map” connections between citizens both within the United States and worldwide. This is perhaps the perfect example of SOCMINT (Social Media Intelligence, a term coined in 2012 by three authors with the London think-tank DEMOS) and in a way the inevitable end result of shifting public opinions towards privacy, combined with the ongoing PRISM program.

In 2007, in the wake of the passage of the Bush Administration’s Protect America Act, the NSA was tasked with gathering intelligence data by monitoring and analyzing internet communications traffic. This once-clandestine operation operated for several years before its existence was revealed by Edward Snowden and confirmed by the telecommunications companies. (Indeed, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications reported that they were ordered to turn over records of all ongoing traffic on a daily basis to the agency.) However, this monitoring and data collection of private information was perfectly legal, supported under the Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and, in a way, a natural end result of the “War on Terror.” Given the need for agencies to determine if a threat of violence or terrorism is imminent, the monitoring of “persons of interest” may be the best way to ensure that attacks resembling 9/11 can be uncovered and prevented in the future. But far more troubling is the current trend of agencies gathering intelligence in social media, if for no other reason than it calls into question one of the cherished (if possibly fictional) rights in the Western democratic tradition, namely the right to privacy.It must be emphasized, however, that gathering intelligence in social media is a business trend that has been around for several years now and is considered a legitimate business practice. Indeed, many companies include social media searches during applicant background checks to determine if a potential hire might not be an appropriate hire. Other business uses for SOCMINT can be social media “listening” (a company using Boolean searches to see what the public is saying about their or their competitor’s products) and social intelligence (using social media to track trends, behaviors, and market understanding).But the Social Media mapping being currently undertaken by US intelligence agencies goes far beyond mere business competitiveness – they are actually constructing maps of connections based off of the profiles and subscribers to Social Media sites in an effort to uncover “connections” that may be cause for concern. One of the most troubling aspects is that the law has yet to catch up with the technology and processes being used. Critics cite the British Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000, legislation that was pushed through to fight the specters of terrorism and child exploitation but was frequently used to monitor British citizens for such crimes as not cleaning up after their dogs and illegal clam harvesting. These types of legislation were designed to force law enforcement and intelligence agencies to be proactive, e.g. identify and pursue a target; the current trend of culling intelligence in social media takes it a step further in that there is now passive monitoring of ALL users toward the end-goal of creating a map of relationships. At present case law is silent on the subject, but hopefully it will catch up soon.