The Military Is Already Using Facebook to Track Your Mood

The intelligence community implores you not to delete your Facebook profile.

National Journal
Patrick Tucker, Defense One
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Patrick Tucker, Defense One
July 3, 2014, 7:55 a.m.

Crit­ics have tar­geted a re­cent study on how emo­tions spread on the pop­u­lar so­cial net­work site Face­book, com­plain­ing that some 600,000 Face­book users did not know that they were tak­ing part in an ex­per­i­ment. Some­what more dis­turb­ing, the re­search­ers de­lib­er­ately ma­nip­u­lated users’ feel­ings to meas­ure an ef­fect called emo­tion­al con­ta­gion.

Though Cor­nell Uni­versity, home to at least one of the re­search­ers, said the study re­ceived no ex­tern­al fund­ing, but it turns out that the uni­versity is cur­rently re­ceiv­ing De­fense De­part­ment money for some ex­tremely sim­il­ar-sound­ing re­search — the ana­lys­is of so­cial net­work posts for “sen­ti­ment,” i.e. how people are feel­ing, in the hopes of identi­fy­ing so­cial “tip­ping points.”

The tip­ping points in ques­tion in­clude “the 2011 Egyp­tian re­volu­tion, the 2011 Rus­si­an Duma elec­tions, the 2012 Ni­geri­an fuel sub­sidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Tur­key,” ac­cord­ing to the web­site of the Min­erva Ini­ti­at­ive, a De­fense De­part­ment so­cial sci­ence pro­ject.

It’s the sort of work that the U.S. mil­it­ary has been fund­ing for years, most fam­ously via the open-source in­dic­at­ors pro­gram, an In­tel­li­gence Ad­vanced Re­search Pro­jects Activ­ity (IARPA) pro­gram that looked at Twit­ter to pre­dict so­cial un­rest.

If the idea of the gov­ern­ment mon­it­or­ing and even ma­nip­u­lat­ing you on Face­book gives you a cold, creep­ing feel­ing, the bad news is that you can ex­pect the in­tel­li­gence com­munity to spend a great deal more time and money re­search­ing sen­ti­ment and re­la­tion­ships via so­cial net­works like Face­book. In fact, de­fense con­tract­ors and high-level U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say that so­cial net­work data has be­come one of the most im­port­ant tools they use in the col­lect­ing in­tel­li­gence.

De­fense One re­cently caught up with Lt. Gen. Mi­chael Flynn, the dir­ect­or of the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency who said the U.S.mil­it­ary has “com­pletely re­vamped” the way it col­lects in­tel­li­gence around the ex­ist­ence of large, openly avail­able data sources and es­pe­cially so­cial me­dia like Face­book. “The in­form­a­tion that we’re able to ex­tract form so­cial me­dia — it’s giv­ing us in­sights that frankly we nev­er had be­fore,” he said.

In oth­er words, the head of one of the biggest U.S. mil­it­ary in­tel­li­gence agen­cies needs you on Face­book.

“Just over a dec­ade ago, when I was a seni­or in­tel­li­gence of­ficer, I spent most of my time in the world of ‘ints’ — sig­nals in­tel­li­gence im­agery, hu­man in­tel­li­gence — and used just a little bit of open-source in­form­a­tion to en­rich the as­sess­ments that we made. Fast for­ward to 2014 and the ex­plo­sion of the in­form­a­tion en­vir­on­ment in just the last few years alone. Open-source now is a place I spend most of my time. The open world of in­form­a­tion provides us most of what we need and the ‘ints’ of old, they en­rich the as­sess­ments that we’re able to make from open-source in­form­a­tion.”

Open-source in­tel­li­gence can take a vari­ety of forms, but among the most vo­lu­min­ous, per­son­al and use­ful is Face­book and Twit­ter data. The avail­ab­il­ity of that sort of in­form­a­tion is chan­ging the way that DIA trains in­tel­li­gence op­er­at­ives. Long gone are the spooks of old who would fish through trash for clues on tar­gets. Here to stay are the eyes look­ing through your va­ca­tion pic­tures.

“We train them dif­fer­ently even than we did a year ago be­cause of the types of tools we have. There are ad­just­ments to the trade craft, and that’s due to the amount of in­form­a­tion we can now get our hands on,” Flynn said.

The growth of so­cial me­dia has not just changed day-to-day life at agen­cies like­DIA, it’s also giv­en rise to a mini gold rush in de­fense con­tract­ing. The mil­it­ary will be spend­ing an in­creas­ing amount of the $50 bil­lion in­tel­li­gence budget on private con­tract­ors to per­form open-source in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing and ana­lys­is, ac­cord­ing to Flynn. That’s evid­enced by the rise in com­pan­ies eager to provide those ser­vices.

Some of them are well known like Pa­lantir, the Sil­ic­on Val­ley data visu­al­iz­a­tion gi­ant that’s been fea­tured prom­in­ently inBloomberg Busi­nes­s­week and has graced the cov­er of For­bes. Col­lect­ing or ana­lyz­ing so­cial net­work data wasn’t something they ori­gin­ally wanted to get in­to ac­cord­ing to Bry­ant Chung, a Pa­lantir em­ploy­ee. Pa­lantir doesn’t mar­ket it­self as a data col­lec­tion com­pany. They provide a tool set to help agen­cies visu­al­ize and share data.

The com­pany wor­ried that part­ner­ing with the in­tel­li­gence com­munity to do so­cial net­work data col­lec­tion could hurt their repu­ta­tion among the tech com­munity, in­creas­ingly wary of the gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to Chung. When the com­pany was ap­proached by NATO and some U.S. in­tel­li­gence groups, they de­cided to ex­plore the mar­ket­place for sen­ti­ment ana­lys­is of so­cial net­work data.

“There are a lot of oth­er com­mer­cial com­pan­ies already in that space. Un­less we know we’re go­ing to crush it, we don’t want to get in,” Chung said. “I think we have a dif­fer­en­ti­ated cap­ab­il­ity, es­pe­cially at a macro level. For ex­ample, you are in­ter­ested in mon­it­or­ing an elec­tion some­where in Africa and you want to know who are the people tweet­ing on one side of an elec­tion versus the oth­er, or who are the most in­flu­en­tial tweeters or you what if you have in­tel­li­gence that an ex­plo­sion is about to hap­pen at a par­tic­u­lar square, can you con­firm that us­ing Tweets?” That’s the sort of thing Pa­lantir wants to help you with.

Many of the groups do­ing this sort of work on be­half of the gov­ern­ment are small out­fits you prob­ably have nev­er heard of. And ideally, you nev­er would.

One of them is a com­pany out of Aus­tin, Texas, called SnapTrends, foun­ded in 2012. They provide a “so­cial listen­ing” ser­vice that ana­lyzes posts to provide in­sights about the cir­cum­stances of the poster, one of the most im­port­ant of which is the poster’s loc­a­tion. The com­pany uses cell tower dens­ity, so­cial net­work knowhow, and vari­ous oth­er ele­ments to fig­ure out who is post­ing what and where. Are you someone who re­fuses to geo-tag your tweets out of con­cerns for pri­vacy? Do you turn off your phone’s GPS re­ceiv­ing cap­ab­il­ity to stay un­der the pro­ver­bi­al radar? It doesn’t mat­ter to SnapTrends.

One tweet and they can find you.

“If it’s a dense en­vir­on­ment. I can put you with­in a block. If it’s a [bad] en­vir­on­ment I can put you with­in two or three blocks,” said Todd Robin­son, dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions for De­fense Mil­it­ary In­tel­li­gence for the com­pany Gen­er­al Dy­nam­ics In­form­a­tion Tech­no­logy, GDIT, and SnapTrends pres­id­ent for Middle East­ern op­er­a­tions. GDIT partnered with SnapTrends to sell their ser­vices to the gov­ern­ment. “Once I do have you, I click this but­ton right here, I can go back five years [of so­cial me­dia posts.]”

SnapTrends says that the tool was ex­tremely help­ful in the in­vest­ig­a­tion fol­low­ing the 2013 Bo­ston Mara­thon bomb at­tacks. Us­ing so­cial net­work ana­lys­is, “we found the col­lege kids that had ac­cess to the com­puters [owned by the sus­pects]. We were able to get to them first,” said Robins.

The use of so­cial net­work data for in­tel­li­gence isn’t just fair, Rob­bins says, it’s a no-brain­er. Scrawl­ing Face­book for clues about hu­man be­ha­vi­or doesn’t re­quire break­ing in via back­doors or oth­er elab­or­ate pieces of tech­no­lo­gic­al trick­ery. “When you join Twit­ter and Face­book, you sign an agree­ment say­ing you will post that to a pub­lic web page. We just pull data from that web page.”

“I’m a re­tired in­tel­li­gence guy,” he said. “This is not that dif­fi­cult, people.”

But while so­cial data may be an im­port­ant tool in in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion, it’s hardly a per­man­ent one.

In the same way that ob­serving the be­ha­vi­or of some sub­atom­ic particles changes the be­ha­vi­or of those particles (called the ob­serv­er ef­fect), watch­ing the tweets and posts of tar­gets can cre­ate an en­vir­on­ment where people tweet less. You pois­on your own well by draw­ing from it. That hap­pens on an in­di­vidu­al level in terms of spe­cif­ic hu­man tar­gets but also on a lar­ger, so­ci­et­al level.

“We’ve seen that already,” Robin­son said. “There is al­ways a risk that as people un­der­stand this, they’ll quit put­ting [posts] on there.”

The view was seconded by SnapTrends co-founder and CEO, Eric Klas­son. “The more the ‘bad guys’ know about what is pos­sible, the less they will use so­cial me­dia. This un­der­mines state, loc­al, fed­er­al and in­ter­na­tion­al law en­force­ment ef­forts,” he told De­fense One.

When asked if he was con­cerned that people might stop us­ing Face­book, Twit­ter and oth­er so­cial net­works as a res­ult of U.S.in­tel­li­gence activ­it­ies, Flynn answered mat­ter-of-factly: “Yes.”

“We have to be agile enough to watch how those ad­apt­a­tions oc­cur and we have to try to stay ahead of them for when we see them and ad­just our cap­ab­il­it­ies to be able to un­der­stand them. People will con­stantly ad­apt to their en­vir­on­ment in or­der to sur­vive,” he said.

DIA has some time be­fore the so­cial net­work pool is spoiled. Today, Face­book re­mains the num­ber one so­cial net­work in the Middle East. More than 90 per­cent of all the In­ter­net users of Qatar, Saudi Ar­a­bia, Le­ban­on, Egypt, Tunisia and the United Ar­ab Emir­ates use the ser­vice.

Should mil­lions of people de­cide to aban­don the net­work and seek out an­oth­er one to con­nect to and com­mu­nic­ate with the out­side world, the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­munity will likely already be there.

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