FBI seeking tools to find threat info in Facebook, Twitter posts

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking to “search and scrape” information from social media websites, including Facebook and Twitter, for the purpose of identifying possible domestic and global threats as they develop.

The potential threats would be mapped and supplemented with additional data using “mash-up” techniques, according to a Request for Information directed to vendors published by the FBI on Jan. 19.

The FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center asked vendors to describe what services and software they could provide and at what price. Responses are due by Feb. 10.

The FBI is looking for an application that would search, collect and analyze publicly-available messages posted on social media networks. It notes that the networks have become primary sources of on-the-ground information on public reaction to global and domestic events and fomenting possibly threatening initiatives, the RFI said.

"Social media has become a primary source of intelligence because it has become the premier first response to key events and the primal alert to possible developing situations,” the RFI stated.

The goal is to collect and analyze the raw data to improve real-time situational awareness. Desired capabilities include the ability to quickly “vet, identify and geo-locate breaking events, incidents and emerging threats.”

The FBI is looking for a solution offering an automated capability to collect and analyze data from social networks including Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, along with news sites. Users should be able to create new keyword searches. Foreign-language tweets would be translated into English.

The application also would allow the threat information to be easily mapped onto various geospatial applications and to be fed into a dashboard or common operating picture and mashed with other data, such as data about international terrorist groups, traffic video feeds and U.S. embassy video feeds.

While the FBI would retain control of the proprietary material in the solution, it could share the information if needed.

Missions to be supported with the new application include reconnaissance, surveillance, counter intelligence, terrorism, cybercrime and National Special Security Event operations and planning.

The bureau’s RFI notes that federal agents need to "locate bad actors and analyze their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations, and possible adverse actions." Another goal is to predict “likely developments” with the alleged bad actors with trend, timeline, association and pattern analysis, the RFI said.

A London-based group, Privacy International, told BBC News it was concerned about the planned data analysis of social networks by the FBI.

"Social networks are about connecting people with other people - if one person is the target of police monitoring, there will be a dragnet effect in which dozens, even hundreds, of innocent users also come under surveillance," Gus Hosein, the group's executive director, told BBC News, according to a Jan. 26 news article.

The FBI is not the only federal agency expanding its analysis of information posted on social media. Earlier this month, the Homeland Security Department published a description of its expanding collection efforts from social media and news sites.

Regarding privacy impacts, the DHS’ Jan. 6 privacy impact document noted that information published on social networks is “publicly accessibly and voluntarily generated.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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