The company worried that partnering with the intelligence community to do social network data collection could hurt their reputation among the tech community, increasingly wary of the government, according to Chung. When the company was approached by NATO and some U.S.intelligence groups, they decided to explore the marketplace for sentiment analysis of social network data.
“There are a lot of other commercial companies already in that space. Unless we know we’re going to crush it, we don’t want to get in,” Chung said. “I think we have a differentiated capability, especially at a macro level. For example, you are interested in monitoring an election somewhere in Africa and you want to know who are the people tweeting on one side of an election versus the other, or who are the most influential tweeters or you what if you have intelligence that an explosion is about to happen at a particular square, can you confirm that using Tweets?” That’s the sort of thing Palantir wants to help you with.
Many of the groups doing this sort of work on behalf of the government are small outfits you probably have never heard of. And ideally, you never would.
One of them is a company out of Austin, Texas, called SnapTrends, founded in 2012. They provide a “social listening” service that analyzes posts to provide insights about the circumstances of the poster, one of the most important of which is the poster’s location. The company uses cell tower density, social network knowhow, and various other elements to figure out who is posting what and where. Are you someone who refuses to geo-tag your tweets out of concerns for privacy? Do you turn off your phone’s GPS receiving capability to stay under the proverbial radar? It doesn’t matter to SnapTrends.
One tweet and they can find you.
“If it’s a dense environment. I can put you within a block. If it’s a [bad] environment I can put you within two or three blocks,” said Todd Robinson, director of operations for Defense Military Intelligence for the company General Dynamics Information Technology, GDIT, and SnapTrends president for Middle Eastern operations. GDIT partnered with SnapTrends to sell their services to the government. “Once I do have you, I click this button right here, I can go back five years [of social media posts.]”
SnapTrends says that the tool was extremely helpful in the investigation following the 2013 Boston Marathon bomb attacks. Using social network analysis, “we found the college kids that had access to the computers [owned by the suspects]. We were able to get to them first,” said Robins.
The use of social network data for intelligence isn’t just fair, Robbins says, it’s a no-brainer. Scrawling Facebook for clues about human behavior doesn’t require breaking in via backdoors or other elaborate pieces of technological trickery. “When you join Twitter and Facebook, you sign an agreement saying you will post that to a public web page. We just pull data from that web page.”