The FBI Wants to Read Your Tweets

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the latest government agency to try to capitalize on the wealth of information flowing publicly through social networks.


On January 19th, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released hints of a plan to monitor and analyze global activity on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. The bureau's Strategic Information and Operation Center posted an open call to the IT industry to develop a system to be able to automatically comb through the wealth of information contained in "publicly available" material from such sites for keywords relating to terrorism, crime, and other FBI operations. The FBI essentially wants to build an early-warning system for potential threats to the U.S., cutting through the white noise of your daily status updates to quickly "vet, identify, and geo-locate breaking events, incidents and emerging threats." If a contractor puts together the right system, the data will be used to influence the FBI's strategic decision making.

Other federal agencies have similar programs. DARPA, the Department of Defense's advanced-projects incubator, put out an open call for "memetrackers" trained in social-network analysis in August. The CIA has maintained a social-media tracking center in Virginia for years, a continuation of the station's original mission to sort through online sources like Daily Kos. But the primary difference between the DoD/CIA projects and FBI's are likely a matter of jurisdiction: the FBI, as the federal government's highest law-enforcement agency, will focus primarily on domestic threats while the CIA and DoD focus their efforts on intelligence gathering abroad. "Social media will be a valued source of information to the SIOC intelligence analyst in a crisis because it will be both eyewitness and first response to the crisis," explains the request. "Intelligence analysts will often use social media to receive the first tip-off that a cris has occurred, collect details of the crsisi on scene through eyewitnesses, detect probably directions and timeframes the crisis is taking, and can ever serve as evidence for investigation."

Don't put on your tinfoil hat just yet: the FBI request explicitly emphasizes that it only seeks to use publicly available data -- information that is already used by marketers and advertisers. If you're livetweeting your attempts to cook up thermite in your basement, you can expect a knock at the door. That said, the increasing use of public data by various government institutions may be a wake-up call for regular citizens. This point is articulated nicely by Electornic Frontier Foundation's Jennifer Lynch in a piece by Jim Giles in New Scientist:

The use of the term "publicly available" suggests that Facebook and Twitter may be able to exempt themselves from the monitoring by making their posts private. But the desire of the US government to watch everyone may still have an unwelcome impact, warns Jennifer Lynch at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. 

Lynch says that many people post to social media in the expectation that only their friends and followers are reading, which gives them "the sense of freedom to say what they want without worrying too much about recourse," says Lynch. "But these tools that mine open source data and presumably store it for a very long time, do away with that kind of privacy. I worry about the effect of that on free speech in the US".

The question of personal data coincides with new concerns over Google's update privacy policy: at what point do we realize that strangers know more about us than we're comfortable with? Is the burden of privacy based in our own sharing habits, or should we feel comfortable speaking freely online without having to worry about our words being saved in perpetuity? In Europe, the proposed "right to be forgotten" would allow EU citizens to demand that organizations delete held data, "as long as there is no legitimate grounds to hold it." It's hard to imagine the U.S. moving forward with a similar proposition.

Image: Reuters
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Jared Keller is a journalist based in New York. He has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, Pacific Standard, and Al Jazeera America, and is a former associate editor for The Atlantic.

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