CIA purchases stake in firm monitoring social networking

News reported on Wired's US website gives details regarding a plan by 'America's spy agencies' to read our blog posts, keep track of our Twitter updates and check out our book reviews on Amazon.

The investment branch of the CIA, a company named In-Q-Tel has invested a sum of money into a company named Visible Technologies, a software firm which specializes in monitoring social media websites such as Twitter and YouTube. According to Wired, this investment is as a result of a movement within the spy services "to get better at using 'open source intelligence' — information that's publicly available, but often hidden in the flood of TV shows, newspaper articles, blog posts, online videos, and radio reports generated every day."

Spokesperson Donald Tighe tells Wired's Danger Room that In-Q-Tel plans to keep track of foreign social media in order to maintain an "early warning detection on how issues are playing internationally."

Visible Technologies uses its technologies to track and participate in influential social media conversations and marches over a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, online forums, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, and Amazon. Closed sites like Facebook will not be affected in terms of privacy for the meantime, though there is nothing to say it will remain this way. According to Steven Aftergood, whose job is to track intelligence issues at the Federation of American Scientists, "Anything that is out in the open is fair game for collection." However, he does speak of the downsides implicit in a project like this:

"Even if information is openly gathered by intelligence agencies it would still be problematic if it were used for unauthorized domestic investigations or operations. Intelligence agencies or employees might be tempted to use the tools at their disposal to compile information on political figures, critics, journalists or others, and to exploit such information for political advantage. That is not permissible even if all of the information in question is technically 'open source.'"

But how does the software work? Customers of Visible are provided with customized, real-time feeds of what's being said on particular sites, based on a series of keywords. "That's kind of the basic step — get in and monitor," says company senior vice president Blake Cahill. The software, according to Wired, works on a basis of keywords which are then categorized by a separate part of the software. Each post is scored as 'positive', 'negative', 'mixed' or 'neutral' furthermore the software has the ability to examine just how influential a conversation on a website or even a particular author is. Finally, the software has the ability for a user to tag posts, forward the information to a colleague and then receive feedback as to their opinion regarding the data.

Is this a case of sensible security measures being put in place by the American government, or is this just another blow to the individual's privacy? Comment below.

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