Perhaps you never caught the TV show Rubicon before AMC yanked it off the air. I actually enjoyed its brain-teasing, intellectual twists and turns — not that I fully understood everything, but this world of intrigue was still fascinating. In this place, innocuous-looking public messages were never what they seemed, and the idea that such evil could be harbored like this — often in plain view — was a chilling thought. That's what made for such good drama.
Well, there's actually a sort of real-life Rubicon-esque operation, courtesy of the CIA. The agency has a specialized division focused on watching, collecting and decoding messages and content from both traditional and social media — as many as 5 million items per day.
We knew that employers monitor Facebook — Apple even fired a UK staffer for comments he made on his wall — but this? When we post pictures of our favorite political farces or even just drunken brawls, there's a clandestine government agency out there surveiling all that?
Well, yes, but it's not likely that the CIA would be interested in the silly cat photo you Tweeted. Or the date you had last week — unless, of course, it was with a terrorist sympathizer. Indeed, these are the big fish the agency's looking to fry.
This division, located somewhere in Virginia at a facility known as "Open Source Center," employs a cadre of people nicknamed the "vengeful librarians." Yes, they scour Facebook, Twitter, newspapers, TV news channels, radio stations, and chat rooms, but what they're looking for are credible threats on a national or global level.
For instance, they knew about the Egyptian uprising before it started. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, they were keyed into the real-time global reaction. And when the Bangkok riots swarmed the streets and threatened the operation of the U.S. Embassy there, they were able to filter out all the scattered, inaccurate or misdirected reports and hone in on the reliable sources, to know what was happening on the ground and keep the embassy running.
"…within an hour, it was all surging out on Twitter and Facebook," the deputy director said. The CIA homed in on 12 to 15 users who tweeted situation reports and cellphone photos of demonstrations. The CIA staff cross-referenced the tweeters with the limited news reports to figure out who among them was providing reliable information. Tweeters also policed themselves, pointing out when someone else had filed an inaccurate account."
Clearly, the intelligence community can benefit from such surveillance. But even so, the idea that the government is spying on millions of public messages can be pretty unnerving, even for everyday people. There are plenty of folks who would be horrified to learn that the worst nightmare of conspiracy theorists is actually true.
Are you one of them? Does this covert work make you feel more secure or less secure? Or, even though you know you're not public enemy #1, does it still make you think twice about the content you put out there?
[via Associated Press]