CIA branch invests in tech firm that monitors blogs, Twitter, social media

Huh, turns out the tinfoil-beanie crowd was right all along: the CIA *does* want to read your blog posts, follow your Twitter updates, and muck around in your Amazon book review history. Snip from Wired Danger Room exclusive:
cia_floor_seal.jpg In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA and the wider intelligence community, is putting cash into Visible Technologies, a software firm that specializes in monitoring social media. It's part of a larger movement within the spy services to get better at using "open source intelligence" -- information that's publicly available, but often hidden in the flood of TV shows, newspaper articles, blog posts, online videos and radio reports generated every day.

Visible crawls over half a million web 2.0 sites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, online forums, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. (It doesn't touch closed social networks, like Facebook, at the moment.) Customers get customized, real-time feeds of what's being said on these sites, based on a series of keywords.

"That's kind of the basic step -- get in and monitor," says company senior vice president Blake Cahill.

Exclusive: U.S. Spies Buy Stake in Firm That Monitors Blogs, Tweets (Wired Danger Room, thanks Noah)


  1. I don’t see why this is overly scary.

    These tools are fancy versions of Technorati. Radian6 and Nielsen’s Buzzmetrics are two of the oldest, but there’s also SM2, Scoutlabs, Trackur and dozens of others.

    Seems like an intelligence agency should be listening to general buzz to monitor if any truly scary stuff comes up (The top post on’s new message board yesterday was about succeeding from the union, for example.)

    1. (The top post on’s new message board yesterday was about succeeding from the union, for example.)

      “succeeding from the union”?

      Was that a Freudian slip? (It’s “seceding”, as in “leave”, not “succeeding” as in “triumphant.”)

  2. Also, there was a scary paragraph in there about how these services analyze a post’s sentiment (pos, neg, neut). It’s as accurate as a coinflip — no tool can understand sarcasm, quotes, offtopic, etc. You’d have to individually read every post (tens of thousands) and adjust the ratings that way.

    The Mybottlesup/TSA fiasco over the weekend is an example of how companies and govt agencies are using these services — A lady writes anti-TSA blog post, she spreads it on twitter, TSA is alerted and responds with their own blogpost a few hours later.

  3. This is very scary. It is another attempt at total information control. It is Big Brother taken to the next level. It makes me afraid of what they will think of my various blogs and especially my political one called “”

    I would hope that they are monitoring blogs that originate from abroad. Isn’t the CIA prevented from spying on Americans?


    1. I’m pretty sure the Patriot Act made it illegal for you to have a dissenting opinion about what the government does.. or at least it did when the GOP was in power. That may have been repealed.

  4. Also, there was a scary paragraph in there about how these services analyze a post’s sentiment (pos, neg, neut). It’s as accurate as a coinflip — no tool can understand sarcasm, quotes, offtopic, etc. You’d have to individually read every post (tens of thousands) and adjust the ratings that way.

    Well, we’d better start hiring. Outsource to India? or crowdsource game?

  5. Isn’t In-Q-Tel already invested in Facebook? I thought their CEO Gilman Louie was on Facebook’s Board of Directors.

  6. I’d be surprised if Facebook doesn’t have the NSA in their data centers, like AT&T. It’d be much more convenient for them to have direct access to the databases. The difference between the sites listed as “public” and facespace is that much of the interesting stuff is not publically posted.

    Just think of the reaction had the government requested or required us to log all our online contacts, conversations, interests, etc. Facebook is a godsend to them.

    Of course, it would be largely useless for tracking actual terrorists.

    1. “Of course, it would be largely useless for tracking actual terrorists.”
      Yes, but once you’ve cleared all the people that turn out not to be terrorists, whoever is left must be one. The logic is unrefutable!

  7. This doesn’t really frighten me much to be honest. This is only collecting information that people have already willfully published to the entire world.

    If there is any information you really wanted to keep private, and you aren’t a moron, you’re already not publishing it in the places this collects from, because it would be seen readily by complete strangers anyways.

    The flipside of that coin though is that this might be a bit unnecessary and redundant. Anyone dumb enough to be incriminated by this data was probably too stupid not to get caught by existing methods anyway… so why bother?

    1. “This doesn’t really frighten me much to be honest. This is only collecting information that people have already willfully published to the entire world.”
      …except that wide-net datamining callously disregards presumption of innocence. In order for a cop to search your car he has to have a reason. In order for him to bust down your door he has to take his evidence to a judge. In order for the State to comb the Net for everything about you, they should need the same. “Being on the internet” is not suspicious.

  8. Here’s a tip: If you don’t want people to know what you’re thinking, don’t post it on your Facebook page!

  9. People are always tellin me that there is nothing wrong with these types of technology. Whats wrong with it if you are not doing anything wrong. If you are a good citizen you have nothing to worry about.
    Huh! What about the whole Jewish thing way back, or what about Hitler getting his hands on it, what about Pol Pot, Milosovich etc.
    The thing I find scary about it is somebody who gets elected to the seat of power decides sudenly that a beard is unclean or people with brown eyes are inferior and must be ethnicly cleansed and they have all this tech at thier fingertips to use against others.

    1. But this is information that people have already gone out of their way to tell everyone on the internet about.

      Mechanizing responses to this information would bother me (I.E. flagging me for investigation based on computer analysis), but doing the equivalent of reading something that I have already published and broadcasted to everyone in the world?

      Is it violating my privacy to record my words if I walk down main street with a PA system speaking to everyone?

      Now, doing this to places where people have a presupposition of privacy is different, but this seems focused on simply harvesting information that people have already freely and deliberately disclosed.

      I guess the only real concern is whether we feel it’s appropriate to data mine rather than only researching this information via an agent when it is specific to a suspect or person of interest. Then again it’s important to remember law enforcement is staffed by real people who use these services anyways, and sometimes trolled by bored citizens who will report suspicious stuff to police anyhow.

      If we didn’t want people knowing this stuff it wouldn’t be there in the first place, from the looks of it.

  10. People are always concerned the government/evil corporations are watching them. Everybody wants to bring them down. I say: join the winning side.

    Work for an evil corporation. Or an intelligence agency. Or a secret society/despotic religious movement. Mwah ha ha ha.

  11. so they can get them on their rss feeds, and subscribe to our twitter feeds like the rest of the world.

    unfortunately, they’re stupid, so they won’t understaaaaaand them.

  12. @Thorn: Only a fool underestimates his enemies.

    As several others have said, having the government listen to what we say in public is hardly threatening. As far as I can tell, there has been no attempt to stifle free speech, nor have I noticed anyone being particularly intimidated by the knowledge that someone is listening. And I’m quite certain that if some government agency were to go after someone because of their views, it would start a major shitstorm. That said, if you threaten someone or admit to some kind of lawbreaking in public, you probably deserve what you get.

    @the anonymous godwin at 8:37…There is a big difference between a government reacting to what a person does and persecuting someone for being a part of group into which they were born. In our system of government getting elected does not give a person unlimited power, so even if Obama were to wake up tomorrow with a passionate desire to see all redheads die, redheads would still be safe from the government. Even if they read their facebook entries…

  13. Wait, that should probably be “reasonable suspicion” rather than “presumption of innocence”.

  14. Searching your car or home requires entering a private space. Looking at something you have posted publicly on the internet does not.

    1. … exactly, this isn’t like searching my car, if you must analogize it to a car, it’s more like reading my bumper sticker.

      I have given them permission to do it by going out of my way to publish it in public view.

      They already are allowed to peruse it manually, in person, as much as they want. They always have been.

      I am actually normally very loathe to expand law enforcement powers, normally, especially the way that has been done lately. This, however, isn’t expanding their powers, it is simply automating something they already have complete legal permission to do, and have had since the internet produced these websites in the first place. Law enforcement already do sometimes use these public online resources for information, though usually after suspicion is already aroused. It’s been largely accepted, because people deliberately put the information into the public eye.

      At no point in American history would this have been in violation of our legal concept of privacy. Obviously cultural concepts do differ from person to person of course and those are valid and well-deserved opinions.

      If you really dislike it, act to prevent it. Enough disgruntled voices might be able to limit its functions. I honestly don’t care either way, I just find it interesting.

  15. The difference here is that, for whatever reason, they’ve made this action public. It only makes sense to me that they’ve been doing things like this since BBS days. That IRC conversation you had a decade ago? Yeah, it’s logged somewhere. That Gtalk message? Yep.

    When you use someone else’s computer, you give them the chance to store your logins/passwords/etc.

    When you use someone else’s services, you’re doing the same thing.

    Emails, instant messages, nude pictures, opinions, feelings, content… if you uploaded it to the internet assume that anyone can get it.

    Think that’s an overstatement? Go on 4chan or Fark and challenge someone to find your private data.

  16. This is a no-brainer. Any software good enough to what Visual is trying to do is of use to these folks. It does not necessarily mean they want you, it just means this the tools show promise.

Comments are closed.