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.