The CIA’s Massive Expansion in Social Media Surveillance is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Pierluigi Paganini April 19, 2016

The US intelligence is massively expanding in Social Media surveillance pushing new technologies, including artificial intelligence for data mining

In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm, has been pursuing various new technologies, including artificial intelligence for data mining, computer algorithms that can detect insider threats and robots which are able to seize delicate objects. This is according to a document The Intercept recently gained access to.

Of particular significance, however, is the research being conducted in the area of social media data mining and surveillance. In-Q-Tel’s portfolio includes an assortment of tech companies which aspire to delve further into this arena:

  • Dataminr provides a stream of data from Twitter to law-enforcement, and others, so that trends can be rapidly detected.
  • Geofeedia also involves the use of social media, but focuses on breaking news and also possesses the ability to track activist protests. Geotagged social media posts are collected and then viewed by the company’s clients, which include numerous law-enforcement agencies.  
  • Dunami, a PATHAR product, is another tool used for data mining social media. It analyzes and summarizes networking, influence and the potential for radicalization, according to an investigation by Reveal. It is one of the surveillance tools utilized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
  • Boasting the ability to spot “gang incidents” and threats to journalists on Twitter, TransVoyant, founded by former Lockheed Martin Vice President Dennis Groseclose, provides a similar service which analyzes multiple data points for the purpose of decision-making. The firm has collaborated with the U.S. military in Afghanistan to integrate data from satellites, drones, radar and reconnaissance aircraft.

The CIA’s investments reveal a pattern, which demonstrates the agency’s elevated push towards monitoring social media platforms. At least part of the focus is on ISIS’ extensive use of social media for spreading propaganda, recruiting and other activities.

As an indication of just how engaged the CIA is in this pursuit:

“The latest round of In-Q-Tel investments comes as the CIA has revamped its outreach to Silicon Valley, establishing a new wing, the Directorate of Digital Innovation, which is tasked with developing and deploying cutting-edge solutions by directly engaging the private sector. The directorate is working closely with In-Q-Tel to integrate the latest technology into agency-wide intelligence capabilities.” states The Intercept.

“Over the last decade, In-Q-Tel has made a number of public investments in companies that specialize in scanning large sets of online data. In 2009, the fund partnered with Visible Technologies, which specializes in reputation management over the internet by identifying the influence of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ authors on a range of platforms for a given subject. And six years ago, In-Q-Tel formed partnerships with NetBase, another social media analysis firm that touts its ability to scan ‘billions of sources in public and private online information,’ and Recorded Future, a firm that monitors the web to predict events in the future.”

Additionally, In-Q-Tel has established a unique technology laboratory known as Lab41. Based in Silicon Valley, it was designed to provide tools for the intelligence community to “connect the dots” in large data sets.

It should be noted that this particular CIA-backed surveillance technology is also being used by domestic law enforcement agencies and the private sector in order to spy on individuals, such as activists.

Interestingly, “Palantir, one of In-Q-Tel’s earliest investments in the social media analytics realm, was exposed in 2011 by the hacker group LulzSec to be in negotiation for a proposal to track labor union activists and other critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business lobbying group in Washington. The company, now celebrated as a ‘tech unicorn’ — a term for start-ups that reach over $1 billion in valuation — distanced itself from the plan after it was exposed in a cache of leaked emails from the now-defunct firm HBGary Federal.”

News of continuing surveillance, involving the government, has always made a lot of people uneasy–in particular, civil liberties advocates. Mass surveillance always brings into question Fourth Amendment constitutional issues. And, the CIA’s investment endeavours, involving monitoring social media, are really just the tip of the iceberg.

As was recently reported in Security Affairs, the CIA has also waded into the health and beauty market with its funding of a new line of skincare products that would enable them to collect DNA. Clearista is a product line that markets itself as a “formula so you can feel confident and beautiful in your skin’s most natural state.” But, the CIA is far less interested in how you look after using these products than in the ability of the Clearista product to remove a thin outer layer of skin that could allow investigators to obtain unique biomarkers that can be used for DNA collection.

The CIA is not alone in its quest to expand its surveillance capabilities. Police departments across the country have been using Beware, an application developed by Intrado, which crawls billions of records in public and commercial databases. It searches for criminal records, Internet chatter and other data. The Beware algorithms then calculate a threat rating score which is assigned to an individual and that information is sent to the requesting law-enforcement officer. It is not, however, foolproof and misinformation can be generated which could be used against an individual.

The FBI has also acquired specialized surveillance software, having purchased SocioSpyder, an application for extracting information from social media sites. According to the product’s website, it “can be configured to collect posts, tweets, videos and chats on-demand or autonomously into a relational, searchable and graphable database.” SocioSpyder was developed by Allied Associates International, a U.S.-based contractor which has government and military and private companies as clientele. SocioSpyder is essentially a pre-configured web scraper for social media.

And, just in case the government misses something, in its far-reaching surveillance, an anti-encryption bill has been drafted in the Senate by Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein, following the death of an anti-encryption bill in California’s General Assembly last week. The bill, titled the Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016, would require tech firms to decrypt customers’ data at a court’s request.

Add to that, the ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently ruled that warrantless collection of cellphone location data is constitutional.

Privacy advocates have expressed concern over these new developments involving the government, technology and civil liberties. In particular, apprehension has been expressed in regard to the automated judgments that software targeting social media uses. Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union commented that, “when you have private companies deciding which algorithms get you a so-called threat score, or make you a person of interest, there’s obviously room for targeting people based on viewpoints or even unlawfully targeting people based on race or religion.” She also warned that a dangerous trend has begun with government relying on tech companies to “build massive dossiers on people” using “nothing but constitutionally protected speech.”

Written by: Sneacker 

Author Bio: Sneacker is a writer who works in the information technology field. She is a member of GhostSec, a counterterrorism unit within the Anonymous collective, and participant in #OpISIS.

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Edited by Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  social media surveillance, CIA)

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