Monday, November 07, 2011

The FBI, CIA, Social Media, and Ninja Librarians

Last month we had a small election in our County. There were two seats open on our local school board and a bond measure for our local community services agency. As always I made sure to vote. When I got home that night I posted a Facebook notice to let people know I had voted in case anyone I knew had forgotten about the election. A few minutes later a friend posted a comment after mine. When I came to the page to read the comment I noticed a couple of Facebook ads related to elections.

On the face of it, Facebook "Related Ads" seem to be quite helpful. Why wouldn't I want to know about other election information? I've just told the whole world that I'm interested in elections.

What I know is that whatever I publish on Internet is public or at least available to someone no matter what Privacy Settings Facebook or any other Internet service offers me. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg goes so far as to say that this is a good thing. Humans long for connecting with people with whom they have something in common. That's why Facebook is so successful says Zukerberg.

As we begin to use social media, and the Internet in general, more and more for publishing our political opinions and activities the Orwellian questions arise as to who knows what I'm doing and what are they doing with that information?

It turns out that a growing list of organizations have the capacity to know. Obviously Facebook knows everything you publish on their service. So do the FBI and the CIA.

In a recent NPR story, How Does the CIA Use Social Media? Robert Seigel interviews Associated Press intelligence correspondent Kimberly Dozier about the CIA's hundreds of "ninja librarians" who comb through millions of tweets and Facebook postings looking for information to provide US government policymakers. When Dozier asked the CIA about the possibility that their analysts might be following postings by American citizens she said "the CIA was very clear with me: We do not follow Americans here or overseas. That's not our purview."

Of course it is the purview of the FBI. We can be certain they are using the same methods and digital tools to conduct their investigations. And, they are likely using the same tools anyone of us can use -- Google Analytics. "Enterprise-class web analytics made smarter, friendlier and free" is the motto Google uses to describe their powerful service that analyzes web traffic.

After the 2011 popular uprisings in the Middle East, United States intelligence staff realized they could have used these tools to predict the uprising in Egypt. In a story for NPA (Google: A New Tool For US Intelligence) Army instructor Gabriel Koehler-Derrick describes how "Google Trends allows us to get a sense of atmospherics." Trying to get a pulse of the citizenry, investigators tap into what kind of information searches people are doing. What they found after the fact in Egypt was that people were following what was going on in Tunis far more than what they might typically be searching on most days.

This isn't something new. Companies have been following our purchasing trends since the advent of computers. Grocery stores have decades of purchasing data on each of us as do banks and credit card companies.

What's different is that now we are putting even more data online. It's not just our shopping habits but our vacations, our family images, our sexual and religious preferences, and our political views. The potential for government officials and investigators for misusing this information is great. Racial profiling is one example of this very difficult issue facing our country since the tragedy on September 11, 2001. Certainly our digital footprints are a big part of the process.

Because we live in a Democratic society I have faith that the power of the information flow will not only allow us to maintain our personal freedoms but also help guarantee the open, Democratic life we enjoy.

During the recent political unrest in the US the world got a window into the power of citizenry voice. A University of California, Davis student published an eight minute video of a pepper spray incident on campus. To date nearly 2.4 million people have seen this video on YouTube.

The video expanded the public dialog such that students were able to communicate their ideas on major mainstream media outlets like Fox News. Shortened versions of the video and snippets hit the mainstream media like wildfire. It went viral. More importantly, the video provides the kind of trend that even Google's electronic servers can't analyze.

Most people watch only about the first minute and a half of the video. However, about two minutes into the video you begin to hear voices in the crowd scream "shame on you!" After just a few shouts the screams turn into a chant. In the next few minutes the police begin to realize that something terrible had just happened and they start to back away. The camera follows as the crowd begins to chant in unison over and over again. The eery video appears as if the students were pushing the police away with their verbal chastising.

This event was no Kent State and the world has changed significantly since that terrible day on May 4, 1970. One result of the tragedy at Kent State was a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a young woman kneeling over the body of a dead student. He had just been shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard. The photo helped inspire Neil Young to write one of the most memorable songs of his long and illustrious career. It also helped galvanize a generation of Americans who stood up and helped finally end the war in Vietnam.

There is no telling what today's social media will do when it comes to changing the political landscape. Just as easily as groups use it to post information about their political views, other groups can use it to publish their own views in an attempt to squelch other movements. That sounds much like Democracy to me.

Today's young people have been born as "great communicators" and the tools available to them may expand their political base if used effectively.

Whatever happens, what we do know is that the whole world is watching. Literally.