FBI seeks Big Brother-'Minority Report' hybrid

FBI has designs on a social-media analysis tool for spotting and responding to threats -- but potential for abuses is worrisome

Recognizing just how powerful a tool social networking sites have become in orchestrating protests, rallies, and riots in the United States and beyond, the FBI is in the early stages of designing a complex system for monitoring tweets, Facebook status updates, Google+ posts, and the like in real time, all in the name of identifying and heading off potential security threats.

The FBI wouldn't be the first organization to sift through troves of public social networking data for discovering and predicting trends, such as health outbreaks or box-office sales. However, privacy advocates may well be concerned by the prospect of the government building a system that's one part Big Brother from "1984" and one part PreCrime Unit from "Minority Report" -- especially if the FBI (or any other organization, really) were to combine the public social media data with user data it could acquire in any numbers of ways through other channels.

Right now, the FBI is in the process of soliciting information from companies as to the feasibility and cost of building an open source geospatial social media alert, mapping, and analysis Web application portal built on mashup technology. "The application must have the ability to rapidly assemble critical open source information and intelligence that will allow [the FBI] to quickly vet, identify, and geolocate breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats," according to the FBI's RFI (request for information).

The FBI is looking to harvest feeds from Twitter, Facebook, and the like because "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," according to the RFI. "[It] has emerged to be the first instance of communication about a crisis, trumping traditional first responders that included police, firefighters, EMT, and journalists."

The FBI would use this social-media analysis system for an array of scenarios, including detecting specific threats, monitoring adversarial situations, predicting how a situation might develop through trend and timeline analysis, and establishing databases for reference and strategic analysis of global issues.

The search portion of the application would scrape data from social networking sites and news sites, then provide instant notifications about breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats based on defined search parameters. It also would be capable of instantly searching and monitoring social networking sites and forums for keywords and strings. As to how that data would be used, the RFI says that "intelligence analysts will monitor social media looking for threatening responses to news of the day, such as a major policy announcement by the federal government, for responses to natural disasters, or indicators of pending adverse events."

Drawing on that data, the system would present alerts visually on a geospatial maps, which would include critical infrastructural layers. Those layers would comprise data about domestic and worldwide terror groups; locations of U.S. embassies, consulates, and military installations; weather conditions and forecasts; and traffic videos. From there, the FBI would want for users to be able to create and share reports summarizing threats and incidents.

This social media analysis tool that the FBI envisions is certainly intriguing on paper, and it's not tough to imagine it's entirely feasible to build in this age of tools of gathering, slicing, and dicing Big Data. The fact that the tool (per the RFI) would only be drawing on already-public social media data might reduce any concerns privacy advocates might have, though arguably the average social media user would be unaware that his or her data might be used in that way and would have no way to opt out of that usage, save for making his or her tweets private.

What's more, we're also in a day and age where at least some retailers are eager to track users comings and goings through their cell phones; where our Facebook friends can share data about us that we might not want them to share; where companies of all sizes are increasingly hording, leveraging, and sometimes selling data about users to third parties. Combine this system with those others types of data (along with other data the FBI might have in its troves), and the potential for privacy invasion and abuse become all the more concerning.

This story, "FBI seeks Big Brother-'Minority Report' hybrid," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.