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FBI's Most Wanted: A Social Media Monitoring Tool

FBI's Most Wanted: A Social Media Monitoring Tool

An FBI listing on FedBizOpps.gov is putting out the call for developers to submit software capable of automatically monitoring social media channels for he purpose of detecting criminal activity. "Given the overwhelming volume of data generated on the Internet ... it is no surprise that the FBI is completely overwhelmed and unable to do any type of canvassing through basic human intervention," said Cornell's Tracy Mitrano.

By Rachelle Dragani
01/27/12 10:47 AM PT

The FBI wants to keep its eye on social media users, according to a job post that invites software developers to submit applications capable of mining through sites such as Twitter and Facebook to identify possible threats.

The post can be found on FedBizOpps.gov.

The bureau has a detailed list of requirements for the app, which it says would only sift through "publicly available" material. The app would have a variety of targets, including cybercrime and terrorism. The FBI requests that the app be able to "adapt quickly to changing threats to maintain the strategic and tactical advantage" for those handling the app.

'Infinitely Flexible'

The app also must be "infinitely flexible," a term that may refer to the app's ability to evolve with ease as possible threats change.

"It could be they're asking that the source code be flexible, so that it's ready for upgrades and updates down the road when those become necessary," Scott Gagnon, account manager at Zco, told TechNewsWorld.

In order to stay on top of those threats, the app must have a "dictionary of tweet lingo" that will allow it to monitor, as rapidly as possibly, key words or phrases the FBI thinks could signal a threat.

The FBI envisions software that can snoop through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+. However, the post also asks that the app be capable of pulling information from news sites, listing Fox News, CNN and MSNBC as examples.

Once a potential threat is spotted, the FBI wants the app to be able to use geo-location tracking technology, at least within a certain radius, to narrow the search to a particular region. Or, if the app is used to track a certain suspect, the FBI wants the ability to ascertain certain details from that person's daily life from status updates, location check-ins or photos to plan an operation.

An app that might win the FBI's acceptance, then, would be able to track a threat as it is emerging and nail down exactly where it's coming from in order to ensure that a proper response team can get into place before any event can materialize.

The listing also suggests that in the event of an attack or crisis, eyewitness accounts of the attacks, such as pictures uploaded to Facebook and Tweets describing the scene, could prove valuable in the following investigation.

The FBI hasn't guaranteed that any submitted app will be used in any future investigation. The post stated that at this stage it's still collecting market research and reviewing development costs to see if it will be a part of its program going forward.

The FBI Needs You

The FBI the first federal organization to recognize the wealth of information stored in social networks. The Department of Defense and the CIA both have trackers on Internet memes and social networks, keeping an eye out for major international threats. The FBI likely hopes to generate an app that can do that on a more targeted, domestic basis.

"Given the overwhelming volume of data generated on the Internet and other media technologies today, it is no surprise that the FBI is completely overwhelmed and unable to do any type of canvassing through basic human intervention. Technology is the only way that there could even be a hope of keeping up with all the content available," Tracy Mitrano, director of IT Policy at Cornell University, told TechNewsWorld.

It's not unusual for a government body to request the help of outside app developers, Mitrano said.

"It's common for companies or organizations to put out a request like this. It goes into great detail and outlines its very specific requirements and often includes information about the budget and other specifics. With the government, depending on the dollar amounts, they're required to get multiple bids, so a request like this isn't out of the ordinary," Mitrano added.

Making Its Mission Known

Though the FBI promises it will only be mining information that is already publicly available, privacy concerns are an increasing worry as users release more and more personal information into the digital sphere.

"After 9/11 and the Patriot Act, protocols were reversed. That is to say that the internal protocols of the government, specifically the FBI, were open to law enforcement to look out at all media in order to examine expression for indications or patterns of activity that could lead to evidence of terrorism in particular and criminal activity in general," said Mitrano.

Some privacy advocates regard that as an invasion, especially as the online social world continues to expand. The FBI is probably eager to make sure users know this is coming, Mitrano said.

"This is a very smart political approach. It is making it transparent for the populace the understanding that if law enforcement is going to function effectively in American society, it must use the technological means that are foundational as to how all Internet companies operate today," said Mitrano.


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