Interview: What the FBI’s Social Media Monitoring Tool Could Look Like

In January, the FBI openly requested help from the tech community in the development of a social media application. The bureau is seeking a system that could help it sift through social networking sit...
Interview: What the FBI’s Social Media Monitoring Tool Could Look Like
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  • In January, the FBI openly requested help from the tech community in the development of a social media application. The bureau is seeking a system that could help it sift through social networking sites for signs of potential terrorism, crime, or other matters of national security.

    Sean Gourley, Co-founder and CTO of Quid According to Sean Gourley, the co-founder and CTO of quantitative analytics firm Quid, the FBI wants to track social sites to not only detect potentially catastrophic events such as bombings and weather related incidents, but it also wants to create a predictive model that would analyze the “publicly available” information that users put on social networks to help it detect “bad actors.”

    How do you feel about the FBI’s request for help in monitoring social media sites? We’d love to know.

    In other words, the FBI is looking for an equivalent to what a company such as Radian6 does for brands. As Gourley explained, most of these types of services do brand monitoring and sentiment analysis. The FBI, however, hopes to piece together multiple data streams that could indicate that something was happening before it reaches the mainstream media.

    For example, if they see activity pertaining to “explosions” or “smoke,” they could potentially jump in and minimize the situation before it gets completely out of hand.

    “What they’re trying to do is go a little bit beyond just… ‘Is this a good tweet or a bad tweet?’ to say, ‘What actually happened in the world?’ and ‘When can we know it?’ and ‘Can we be the first to know it?'” said Gourley.

    While the idea is simply nothing more than that, at this point, there are challenges that the FBI faces. For starters, it will be difficult to understand what is real versus what is fake, if it merely relies on keywords. Take the word “bomb” for instance. It can be used to say someone or something is “the bomb,” which does not mean that either is literally an explosive device.

    Another challenge that the FBI is facing is the backlash from privacy groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, over its request. Even though the FBI has said that it would only use the information that users make “publicly available,” these groups believe that such monitoring would prevent free speech and violate privacy and civil rights.

    “Anytime you are tracking people’s activities to infer a type of behavior that has significant consequences, people are gonna start to get worried,” said Gourley.

    As he explained, technology has advanced, and new services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare have developed in a way that has made sharing very easy. Our society, as a whole, enjoys checking-in to places, writing reviews on Yelp, and simply sharing about themselves on the other social sites.

    Through this sharing cycle, Gourley said that we have essentially entered into a “deal” with social sites that allows them to serve us with search ads if we share data.

    “We’ve sort of entered this bargain as a society to share information in return for being served ads,” he said. “What we haven’t really, at least not consciously, entered into is sharing information in return for perhaps being identified as a bad actor by the FBI,” he said.

    While this is true, what most consumers may not realize is that the government has been monitoring information for many years. The Internet, and namely social networks, is now just the newest form with which to do it.

    “Indeed, the whole concept of open source intelligence has been around with us since the second World War… it’s just kind of evolved now to take advantage of the data streams we have in front of us,” pointed out Gourley.

    Since consumers are using social sites as its primary mode of communication, Gourley believes that the FBI should be using the information in order to protect the country to the best of its ability.

    “If a company like Radian6 can know more about a brand than you can know about a bomb in Afghanistan, the FBI looks pretty stupid,” he said. “So, this is absolutely the kind of things they want to be using and needs to be doing to do their job properly.”

    According to Gourley, the interesting part in this concept is the fact that the FBI isn’t developing the technology themselves. He told us that, when he graduated, the top jobs were with the government and the National Security Agency. Now, the tables have turned since the crash of Wall Street, and the current top jobs are in the Silicon Valley. Instead of working on government intelligence matters, the talent is working to figure out how to serve better ads to encourage consumers buy more.

    “The sad truth is there’s more money in selling ads to Facebook users at the moment,” said Gourley. “The kind of dollars they’re [FBI] looking at here really do pale in comparison to what can be earned from serving social media ads.”

    He went on to say that the FBI would likely receive some proposals but that the demand for solutions that sell more ads is much higher.

    Incidentally, a House Homeland Security Committee hearing was held last week in which the Department of Homeland Security testified that its efforts were not violating any laws. Representative Jackie Speier, however, spoke out against the agency over some accusations regarding the monitoring of reporters’ activities. She referenced statements filed by EPIC and even asked that the nonprofit’s recommendations be considered.

    At this point, it’s still very unclear how this saga will play out.

    Should the FBI be allowed to monitor social networks, or should it be filtered? Would you feel safer or worse knowing the bureau was monitoring this activity? Please let us know what you think in the comments.

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