FBI to monitor Facebook, Twitter, Myspace

The FBI is looking to monitor all public information posted on social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace. The organization is asking for an app to do all the scraping automatically.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is looking to develop a Web app that can continuously monitor social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, as well as various news feeds. The organization's goal is to improve its real-time intelligence when it comes to current and emerging security threats.

The plan for such an app was inadvertently revealed by the FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center (SOIC) in a solicitation for a "Social Media Application." The FBI typically avoids openly discussing how social networks are used as an intelligence tool, but the 12-page Request for Information document (PDF, half the pages are oddly blank) reveals in detail what the organization is interested in.

The FBI specifies the following operational capabilities for the app (notice the second and last points in particular):

  • Provide an automated search and scrape capability of both social networking sites and open source news sites for breaking events, crisis, and threats that meet the search parameters/keywords defined by FBI SIOC.
  • Ability for user to create, define, and select parameters/key word requirements. Automated search of national news, local news, and social media networks. Examples include but are not limited to Fox News. CNN, MSNBC, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Ability for user to create, define, and select radius search functions that can be searched independently or in combination with an identified key word search/parameter.
  • Provide automated filtering of data that has been searched and collected based on defined search parameters.
  • Provide instant notifications of breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats that have been vetted and meet the defined search parameters.
  • Ability to display alerts visually by geo-locating alerts onto a geospatial map. Displayed alerts should be prioritized (i.e. color coded) in accordance with FBI defined priorities.
  • Ability to clear alert or maintain alert until its final resolution to be determined by the FBI designated user.
  • Ability to save and archive the alerts.
  • Ability for user to instantly select desired national and local news feeds to monitor breaking events and emerging threats, scrape the vetted news and social media information.
  • Ability to immediately access geospatial maps with coding in addition to providing critical infrastructural layers. Preferred maps include but are not limited to Google Maps, Google 3D maps, ESRI, and Yahoo Maps.
  • Ability to create templates that will allow user to quickly summarize (i.e. who, what, when, where, and why) threats/incidents identified and alerted by the application with geo-coordinates included. Ability available to immediately ingest the information into the Spot Report for time-sensitive threats/incidents.
  • Ability for user to immediately disseminate the summarized threat or incident by either single alert notification or mass notification to the appropriate field office and FBI Executive Management.
  • Ability to capture and summarize the investigative efforts conducted by the Field Office for resolution of the incident.
  • Provide "Spot Report" folders to save and archive past reports.
  • Ability to support Field offices by region by pre-designated or established tabs that will mirror the basic functional capabilities as the main SIOC site.
  • Each tab should have the flexibility to make immediate changes to effectively support the mission requirements for a specific division.
  • Ability to instantly search and monitor key words and strings in all "publicly available" tweets across the Twitter Site and any other "publicly available" social networking sites/forums (i.e. Facebook, MySpace, etc.).

Other parts of the document outline analytical capabilities and security requirements. This is a rare glimpse into what the FBI requires for its monitoring applications and shows just how seriously the government agency thinks about social media. The document, which was released on January 19, asks companies which might want to build such a monitoring system for the FBI to reply by February 10.

Privacy advocates have been strongly opposed to social media monitoring, especially if the data is saved and stored for long periods of time. If the scraping is limited to only publicly-available posts, however, they don't have much of an argument.

The FBI app in question would likely include the most content from Twitter and Myspace users, since both sites have users that share publicly more often than privately. As Facebook pushes its subscribe feature further and emphasizes sharing more and more, however, the social networking giant is only going to see more public content from its users, and thus so will the FBI.

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