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."