The CIA Open Source Center Tracks the Pulse of the World Through Facebook & Twitter
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has a crack group of analysts tracking the Internet, including tweets and Facebook messages, that takes the pulse of the world. Located in McLean, Virginia the CIA Open Source Center is know as the “vengeful librarians” according to a report from the Associated Press. These librarians are tracking up to five million tweets a day from places like China, Pakistan and Egypt.
It is sometimes disconcerting to know what the U.S. intelligence complex is doing, right in your backyard. McLean is a beltway city in Northern Virginia that is best known for Tysons Corner, one of the shopping hubs of the East Coast. On the outskirts of the city limits there is also the George H.W. Bush CIA complex, on of the agency’s main hubs in the D.C. region.
Open Source Center Set Up After 9/11
The CIA facility was set up after a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission. According to the AP, its first priority was to focus on, “counterterrorism and counterproliferation.” The reports generated from the CIA Open Source Center invariably make their way to president Barack Obama’s desk.
The Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 was when social media like Facebook and Twitter really came to the forefront of the center’s analysts. The analysts correctly predicted the Arab Spring that came to Egypt and Tunisia this year. Essentially, the CIA is using social media to predict where groundswell will turn into real action and follow breaking trends and news.
The U.S. media does much of the same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. One prominent example was during the Discovery Building hostage crisis in Silver Spring, Maryland in September, 2010. A news startup owned by the owners of Politco, TBD.com, was able to track the tweets and social media happenings around the building and the circumstance, giving a correct and at times chilling view from the area.
(Disclosure: I worked for TBD.com at the time and was in the newsroom during the Discovery Building news. I also lived in McLean, Va.)
Tracking Facebook, Citizens, The World
Facebook has been long accused of having secret ties to the CIA. Some of the more outrageous claims believe that Mark Zuckerberg was recruited by the CIA to build Facebook as a data-mining project and that Facebook hatched as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiative. These types of rumors seem ridiculous, but there is no doubt that governments around the world are using Facebook data to keep an eye on citizens.
The AP report made little mention of what the CIA is doing on the domestic front except for noting that the CIA is using its social media records to compare it to the track record of polling organizations to see how accurate the results are. Think of it as a calibration technique; the polling organizations are often quite accurate and can be used a somewhat of a loose standard to judge the accuracy of the Open Source Center’s results. On the domestic front, the Federal Bureau of Investigation may have its own social media tracking program.
While it may seem underhanded and sneaky for the CIA to be tracking social media use to know the pulse of the world, the practice is not something that should surprise anyone. Much of this data is open to whoever is looking for it and the large companies and data specialists of the private sector likely have similar operations focusing on a variety of aspects of humanity from market trends to politics, sports or fashion.
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