When you tweet, the CIA listens

The CIA's 'vengeful librarians' monitor millions of tweets each day. Are U.S. spooks spying on your Twitter account, too?

Careful what you say on Twitter, the spooks may be listening.

As a fascinating and rare insider report by AP reporter Kimberly Dozier reveals, the Central Intelligence Agency is analyzing millions of Twitter posts each day to get the inside skinny on events transpiring half a world away.

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A team jokingly referred to as the "vengeful librarians" analyzes up to 5 million tweets in a wide range of languages, then cross-references them against media reports and public opinion surveys to determine which Twitter users are reliable sources.

These spies are less like Matt Damon in the Bourne movies and more like Robert Redford in "Three Days of the Condor," only probably not as handsome. In other words, these spooks are also geeks. Per Dozier:

From Arabic to Mandarin Chinese, from an angry tweet to a thoughtful blog, the analysts gather the information, often in native tongue. They cross-reference it with the local newspaper or a clandestinely intercepted phone conversation. From there, they build a picture sought by the highest levels at the White House, giving a real-time peek, for example, at the mood of a region after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden or perhaps a prediction of which Mideast nation seems ripe for revolt.

The upshot: Folks in the Arab world didn't much care for that whole Osama thing -- what a surprise -- and the CIA knew Egypt was about to hit the boiling point, it just couldn't pinpoint when that might happen.

Why watch Twitter or Facebook? Because unlike traditional media, which is often controlled by the government (or is just lazy and/or brain dead, as in this country), they are open source -- anyone can contribute, and it's much harder to clamp down on them. Even when authorities try to turn off the social media spigot, as the Mubarak regime tried to do in Egypt last January, information invariably finds a way to trickle out.

Before you slip on that tin foil hat, though, remember: The spooks are watching events transpire, not necessarily zeroing in on individuals who may pose a threat. As we all know, the CIA isn't legally allowed to spy on American citizens -- though, as we also all know, sometimes they or their pals in the NSA do it anyway.

Which doesn't mean that one of your Twitter followers isn't really a spook watching your tweets to suss out whether you're a potential terrorist. Julian Assange has accused the CIA of using Facebook as "an appalling spy machine," claiming it had a direct conduit into the social network.

Of course, Assange is an ass, and he offered no proof to back up these claims. But I think he's at least partially right in this case. Domestic law enforcement agencies have woken up to the treasure trove of information presented on social media. If they aren't looking at it, they're crazy. And if you're using Twitter or Facebook to map out your evil plans to overthrow the government, you're probably crazy too.

Is the government spying on your tweets and, if so, just how crazy are you? Share your insanity below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "When you tweet, the CIA listens," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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