Research: Spies increasingly using Facebook, Twitter to gather data

Spying on social networking


During the past four years, this blog has reported several incidents pointing to the increasing frequency with which spy agencies of various countries are utilizing social networking media as sources of tactical intelligence. But are we at a point where we can speak of a trend? In other words, is the rapid rise of social networking creating the conditions for the emergence of a new domain in tactical intelligence collection? This past week saw the publication of a new research paper (.pdf), which I co-authored with Micah-Sage Bolden, entitled “Social Networking as a Paradigm Shift in Tactical Intelligence Collection”. In it, we argue that recent case studies point to social networking as the new cutting edge in open-source tactical intelligence collection. We explain that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a host of other social networking platforms are increasingly viewed by intelligence agencies as invaluable channels of information acquisition. We base our findings on three recent case studies, which we believe highlight the intelligence function of social networking. The first case study comes out of the Arab Spring, which, according to one report, “prompted the US government to begin developing guidelines for culling intelligence from social media networks”. We also examine NATO’s operations during the 2011 Libyan civil war (Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR), when Western military forces systematically resorted to social networking media to gather actionable intelligence, by utilizing open sources like Twitter to pinpoint targets for attack. Finally, we examine the sabotage by Israeli security services of the 2011 “Welcome to Palestine Air Flotilla” initiative, a campaign organized by several European groups aiming to draw worldwide attention to the travel restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities on the Occupied Territories. Israeli authorities were able to disrupt the “air flotilla” by systematically monitoring the participants’ online activities on social networks. In conclusion, we argue that, examined collectively, these case studies underscore the ability of social networking to do three things: (a) reflect opinion trends and channel mass political action; (b) provide actionable tactical intelligence; and (c) enable highly effective —and highly controversial— security operations against targeted groups. The paper, which is published in the 2012 Intelligence Studies Yearbook (pages 28-40), is available in .pdf format here.

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