As you read this, a team of highly trained covert operatives are performing high tech espionage - from behind computer screens somewhere in Virginia. The folks at the CIA's Open Source Center are busy gathering social media data from all over the world, looking to predict the next uprising and trying to find the international pulse regarding U.S. actions.
According to information acquired by the Associated Press, the CIA has established a center for monitoring all the social media chatter across the globe. The operatives, numbering in the hundreds, comb through Tweets, Facebook posts, blog postings, and chat rooms in order to find information that could be helpful to international operations.
They can go through upwards of 5 million tweets per day.
From Arabic to Mandarin Chinese, from an angry tweet to a thoughtful blog, the analysts gather the information, often in native tongue. They cross-reference it with the local newspaper or a clandestinely intercepted phone conversation. From there, they build a picture sought by the highest levels at the White House, giving a real-time peek, for example, at the mood of a region after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden or perhaps a prediction of which Mideast nation seems ripe for revolt.
Apparently the CIA team, or "vengeful librarians" as they are called, saw the whole Egyptian uprising thing coming from a mile away. They just couldn't accurately predict when it would happen. They knew that social media would be the "game changer" in the region - a prediction that has been proven correct in the last year.
The program was set up as an initiative of the 9/11 commission, and began seriously focusing hard on social media after the Green Revolution protests in Iran following the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Information from the center is given to President Obama for his daily intelligence briefing.
One of the huge goals of the operation is to monitor international response to U.S. actions - and that was tested when the U.S. entered into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden earlier this year:
After bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May, the CIA followed Twitter to give the White House a snapshot of world public opinion.
Since tweets can't necessarily be pegged to a geographic location, the analysts broke down reaction by languages. The result: The majority of Urdu tweets, the language of Pakistan, and Chinese tweets, were negative. China is a close ally of Pakistan's. Pakistani officials protested the raid as an affront to their nation's sovereignty, a sore point that continues to complicate U.S.-Pakistani relations.
The director of the program, Doug Naquin acknowledges that the chatter that they analyze daily might give them a little slant towards the "urban elite" in a particular area, since internet access (thus access to social media) is limited in many of the areas they monitor.
But the information pulled from this meticulous operation has already proved valuable. And as more people gain access to social media, the amount of information available to patrol will grow exponentially.
I guess the moral here is that your tweets and Facebook posts might have a much greater reach than you think.