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CIA Invests In Firm That Datamines Social Networks 190

An anonymous reader writes with this excerpt from Wired: "In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA and the wider intelligence community, is putting cash into Visible Technologies, a software firm that specializes in monitoring social media. It's part of a larger movement within the spy services to get better at using 'open source intelligence' — information that's publicly available... Visible Technologies crawls over half a million web 2.0 sites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, online forums, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. (It doesn't touch closed social networks, like Facebook, at the moment.) Customers get customized, real-time feeds of what's being said on these 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. Then Visible 'scores' each post, labeling it as positive or negative, mixed or neutral. It examines how influential a conversation or an author is. ('Trying to determine who really matters,' as Cahill puts it.) Finally, Visible gives users a chance to tag posts, forward them to colleagues and allow them to response through a web interface."Apropos: Another anonymous reader points out an article making the point that users don't even realize how much private information they're sharing over these services.
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CIA Invests In Firm That Datamines Social Networks

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  • by mrdoogee ( 1179081 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @10:54AM (#29808165)
    Why a US government agency needs an "investment arm?"
  • !Anonymous. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tubal-Cain ( 1289912 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @10:56AM (#29808181) Journal

    An anonymous reader writes with this excerpt...

    Anonymous to us, maybe...

  • by cryoman23 ( 1646557 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @10:58AM (#29808211)
    on sites like twitter u just don't go and tell/fill in personal information... and if its mandatory scrap the site
  • by Tubal-Cain ( 1289912 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @10:58AM (#29808219) Journal
    If you've got your own little money tree you aren't as tied to budgets set by someone else.
  • by LordKazan ( 558383 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @11:35AM (#29808889) Homepage Journal

    that statement is neither necessarily true nor necessarily false - corporations and the government are bureaucracies. Sometimes one is better, sometimes the other is.

    For example the National Weather Service kicks the living crap out of every private company trying to do the same thing. They pay well, the recruit the best and brightest, they are managed by professionals with experience doing what their underlings do [something you often only can DREAM of in the corporate world or the government world].

    Medicare is another example - it's operating overhead is 4%. The operating overhead of private "insurance" (sorry, it's fraud, not insurance anymore) is a whopping 30% MINIMUM.

    On the other hand there are some things private industry IS better at doing, and the government quite often contracts out to these people - construction comes to mind, software development, etc.

    The government, when run by skilled people, tends to be much better at private industry than doing things that are "natural monopolies" (police, fire, roads, water, etc) or things the profit-motive would harm [like insurance].

  • by mollog ( 841386 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @11:41AM (#29809013)
    What troubles me about this is not the security applications, although there is risk there, too, but the political, persuasive abuse. Innocent sites like Slashdot will be 'turfed' to move public opinion and public perception.

    I'll guess that this is already going on.
  • by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @11:42AM (#29809017) Journal

    Reading publicly-posted comments is not a problem. At least, not to me. (I do know some thickies that are shocked, SHOCKED, that someone besides their BFFs can read their social networking crap.) Anyways, sure, public posting is public. Even lolcat knows that.

    But agencies of state power reading, aggregating, correlating, and scoring... drawing secret conclusions based on hidden agendas and closed criteria... that's disturbing. Shades of J. Edgar Hoover's secret file cabinet and COINTELPRO and the basement of Stasi HQ.

    This sounds naive, but on principle this should be opt-in only. If this were for marketing purposes, it certainly would be. But for stuff which actually matters (life, liberty, et al.), it's beginning to look like non-participation is the only opt-out. And the chilling effect is as effective as any active anti-dissent measure.

  • by megamerican ( 1073936 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @11:45AM (#29809071)

    What you don't understand is that part of the CIA has ALWAYS had an investment arm, even before the CIA and OSS existed. The CIA was born out of the private intelligence networks already well established by Wall Street, hence why so many of the early CIA was filled and run by Ivy League schools and Yale's Skull and Bones crowd.

    The funny thing is Facebook has long since been implicated as being funded indirectly by In-Q-Tel. []

    The second round of funding into Facebook ($US12.7 million) came from venture capital firm Accel Partners. Its manager James Breyer was formerly chairman of the National Venture Capital Association, and served on the board with Gilman Louie, CEO of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm established by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1999. One of the company's key areas of expertise are in "data mining technologies".

    Since 1947 the CIA and other intelligence activities have been more and more privatized. They have always used front companies. Search for the Northwoods Documents, which were authored in the late 1950's.

    Many have argued that E.O 12333 privatized a lot of intelligence work. Read Confessions of an Economic Hitman if you want to know one reason why they do this.

    This is really only news to people who don't pay attention.

  • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @11:56AM (#29809311)

    (It doesn't touch closed social networks, like Facebook, at the moment.)

    More like, they're not admitting touching them . . . at the moment.

  • by zoloto ( 586738 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @12:28PM (#29809881)
    Considering he's created this site to foster tech-specific talk over 10 years ago instead of releasing press releases or blog with anecdotal chatter...
  • Re:Here's why (Score:4, Insightful)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @01:08PM (#29810631)

    So my follow-on question is, Why does everyone think it's OK for private companies answerable to no one (or the highest bidder) to be collecting this information in the first place? Well, yes, I suppose most people in this thread don't think so, but all of the normal people out there seem to be perfectly happy with the idea.

    Because they don't view the Bill of Rights as sound and enlightened principles to be honored wherever possible that happened to be enshrined in the Constitution. They view them as rules like any other. Then they note that either the rules don't apply to those private companies or they would be difficult to enforce, and for them, that's that. It's a mentality that is all about what is allowed or what can be gotten away with, rather than what is right or wrong.

    I do have a more immediate question. If an average citizen hires a person to do something illegal, both the person and the one he hired can be charged with a crime. If it's illegal for the CIA to gather data on American citizens, why is it suddenly legal when they do the same thing by proxy? Why wouldn't both they and the company they hired be prosecuted for this?

  • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @01:22PM (#29810849) Journal
    The CIA isn't. Some private company is doing it :).

    If that's not good enough, I'm sure they can always make some vaguely legal request to the private company to ask another private company/organisation and so on to do the dirty work.

    The benefits of outsourcing.

    That's why I find it hilarious when the fanatics keep saying small government will be better than big government.

    If you really think a small government that outsources all the dirty work to private corporations will be better, you're a fool.

    The real problem is quality not quantity. Poor regulation, by the regulators AND by the voters.

    Most people don't seem to realize that. I suppose the problem there again is quality and not quantity either... But quantity wins in democracies - and still the ignorant wonder why those in power refuse to educate properly the people who keep voting them back in...
  • by causality ( 777677 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @01:40PM (#29811199)

    This is data that people freely post to be read by all anyway. All this seems to do is aggregate it. If you post it in a public forum, you shouldn't care who uses it or how. Unless the sites being scraped have policies against said scraping, who cares? I see it as a very valuable tool for sales departments.

    Besides, I am sure the signal to noise ratio for this system is incredibly low, so one has to wonder how much usable information is retrieved.

    The only problem I have with this is that my tax dollars are going to fund it.

    I'll explain that with a hypothetical analogy. There's nothing wrong with a person who can see your house from the public street. You knew it was a public road before you built a house near it, after all. However, you might find it a bit unsettling if the same van is always parked on that road and its occupant is always watching your house day and night. You might find it downright alarming if you noticed that he was videotaping your premises and taking notes about your daily activities. You might wonder what he plans to do with that information. You might be unable to come up with any good or desirable uses, but able to see a ton of abuse potential for it. But by your logic above, that should be okay because you had no expectation of privacy for anything you make visible from a public street, right?

    In meatspace we do tend to draw a line between someone who happens to drive on that road and happens to glance at your premises, and someone who acts like a malicious stalker. There's a very good reason for that. The reason is not dictated by the special needs of meatspace; it is not the result of the law of gravity or the law of magnetism. No, the reason is rooted in sound principle. Principle is an abstract thing that applies equally to the streets and the Internet. I realize it's trendy for officials and such to act like we've never faced any of these questions before merely because a computer is involved, but it's not necessary.

    The moment your creative output is collected, tagged, and studied, you become an object of study. It's a rather demeaning status when it's done for no good reason and occurs against your will, and by people who frankly don't give a damn about you. I see one major use of this system and it's not a good one.

    In a truly representative government, the government changes over time to meet the changing needs of the people. The nature of that change depends on the people themselves and in this way it's a natural change, not an engineered one. Predicting it, for example to capitalize on it, always has some element of chance. This is a "problem" for people who think they should be holding the reins.

    So they come up with systems like this one. Now they can quantify things like political influence and find out, with fine precision, where it comes from and who possesses it. What would have taken a massive propaganda effort in the past can now be done with just a little "push" at just the right place. Do some of you ever wonder where the restrictions came from that prohibit the CIA from spying on Americans? Do you imagine they are a product of chance? This is, after all, a method of circumventing those restrictions.

  • by causality ( 777677 ) on Tuesday October 20, 2009 @03:56PM (#29813305)

    The only problem I see with that analogy is that you are saying it is someone watching everything I do, and only me. While monitoring the blogs can lead to that, I would see this as a van that drives through my neighborhood everyday, taken pictures of the houses. While still a little unsettling, all they are really going to see is what I put out for them to see.

    So surveillence is only bad when it's personal? I can't get behind that. There is no principle in it, there is only the consideration of whether you alone will have to bear the burden of it. While it may make you feel more equal to know that everyone else is being treated the same shitty way that you are, with no regard for their privacy, it's still no excuse to treat people that way.

    To me, the idea that the CIA can personally spy on you and only you is bothersome. The idea that it's just as easy for them to spy on many people at once is even worse. It's not an improvement, not if you don't wish to see intelligence agencies engaging in domestic spying and data mining. If you love freedom and understand a thing or two about how it is compromised, then there are two concerns here. One is that such a system can target individuals.

    The other concern is that it indicates a government agency that is able and willing to overstep its bounds. Your comfort that they are not personally targetting you does not help with this one. These are not people who respect the limitations under which they are expected to work or the liberties those are designed to safeguard. Rather, they view those limitations as obstacles or challenges, to be disposed of as soon as possible and by any means necessary. Any excuse will do; "safety" is a popular one.

    While it is easy for them to see who lives in a particular house based on the address, it is a completely different scenario to know that all around, and still have any meaningful information. The amount of manpower it would take to tie a real 'meatspace' individual to their cyberspace id is pretty high and would take a considerable amount of time to do it for everyone they monitor.

    Yes, it would take a lot of manpower. So they are doing their best to automate the process, to offload as much of that effort onto sophisticated machines as they possibly can. Such as the ones this firm is using. In other words, the CIA seems to agree with you and is obviously doing everything it can about the "problem" of how difficult it is to spy on everyone.

    What, did you think they would just give up?

"I shall expect a chemical cure for psychopathic behavior by 10 A.M. tomorrow, or I'll have your guts for spaghetti." -- a comic panel by Cotham