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CIA Invests in Software Firm Monitoring Blogs, Twitter

StoryOctober 22, 2009
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Wired magazine has revealed the investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency has invested in a software firm called Visible Technologies that specializes in monitoring social media sites, including blogs, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. Wired reporter Noah Shachtman writes, “America’s spy agencies want to read your blog posts, keep track of your Twitter updates — even check out your book reviews on Amazon.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: “America’s spy agencies want to read your blog posts, keep track of your Twitter updates — even check out your book reviews on Amazon.” That’s the lead sentence to a new article on the website of Wired magazine titled “US Spies Buy Stake in Firm that Monitors Blogs, Tweets.”

The article reveals how the investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency has invested in a software firm called Visible Technologies that specializes in monitoring social media sites, including blogs, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon.

AMY GOODMAN: Noah Shachtman joins us here in our firehouse studio. He broke the story. He’s a contributing editor at Wired and editor of “Danger Room,” the magazine’s national security blog.

OK, lay it out for us, Noah. What did you find?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: So, the CIA, in 1999, set up an investment arm called In-Q-Tel that sort of makes investments in technologies that the spy agencies would like to see grow. And their latest investment is in this company called Visible, which basically takes blog posts and takes Twitter updates and takes comments on YouTube videos and sort of sorts them out and decides which people have the most weight in the blogosphere, which people are the most influential, and also filters out, you know, certain key words, decides whether certain posts are hostile or positive. And it’s basically a way for them to sort of keep track on what’s going on in Twitter, on the blogs, etc., etc.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And who does this firm normally supply this information to?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Usually to companies like Microsoft. Right now they’re tracking the buzz on their Windows 7 release. They also do the work for Hormel, the processed meat company. When PETA was going after Hormel for some of their business practices, they kept track on the sort of anti-processed food activists. So it’s usually corporate clients, although there’s sort of a political spin to some of the work they do, as well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in essence, they’re sort of like an intelligence operation for the corporate world on a normal —-

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Yeah. They would say they try to spot trends and keep tabs on things, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But In-Q-Tel, you say, is the investment arm of the CIA. I think a lot of people would just be surprised by the CIA having an investment arm.

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Yeah, that’s right. In 1999, the CIA set up this sort of separate agency that would make investments on behalf of the intelligence agencies. It was a way to sort of develop certain technologies without going through the formal contracting process. Remember, back in 1999, that was like sort of the height of the dotcom boom. And there were a lot of these business incubators that were growing small businesses into something bigger. And In-Q-Tel was the CIA’s attempt to do the same thing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is it reporting it’s making money for the government?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: I don’t -— it’s a not-for-profit —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: Oh, not-for-profit, I see.

NOAH SHACHTMAN: —- company, but I do believe that it has — many of its investments have panned out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how Visible works. You talk about how it crawls over half a million web 2.0 sites a day.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly. And then, how do people protect their privacy?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Well, first they protect their privacy by not tweeting or not blogging. I mean, that’s the way they would have to protect their privacy, or to do it within a closed password-protected system. If you leave it out there, not only is the government going to read it, but Microsoft and Google just signed deals with Twitter and Facebook yesterday, where all the — all your tweets and all your blog updates will be very easily searchable by either Microsoft’s Bing search engine or by Google.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the deal?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: The deal is basically that all your Facebook updates will be sort of fed into Microsoft’s new search engine, and people will be able to see what you post on Facebook or Twitter, or what have you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, for the CIA, given the fact — the recent reports of how tweets and other social networking are used around the world sometimes to give advance notice on popular insurrections or —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: For the CIA, this would be a sort of a normal direction for them to take, if they want to collect more intelligence.

NOAH SHACHTMAN: It would be. They’re probably already doing so, but just in a less elegant way. So this is probably -— for them, they view it as a smarter way to get information they’re already interested in. The question is whether it’s aimed out at international audiences or whether it’s aimed in at domestic ones.

AMY GOODMAN: Noah Shachtman, you’ve also written about the US military using a fleet of unmanned spy blimps to keep tabs on would-be enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq.



NOAH SHACHTMAN: Well, you know, the US military in Afghanistan — I just got back from there in September — is very interested in what’s called ISR — Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. The idea is to see as much of what’s going on in Afghanistan as possible and to hear as much of what’s going on in cell phone conversations, or what have you. And so, these blimps are another tool to do it. There’d be cameras and listening equipment installed in these blimps in Afghanistan. It’s another way to kind of keep tabs on what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us what’s going on in New Jersey. In New Jersey, you have written about the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Lakehurst.

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Oh, oh, yeah, right, right, right. So, in New Jersey, there is a — the Navy’s got a sort of R&D arm, and they’re looking to upgrade what’s in those spy blimps and really kind of update the surveillance equipment, make it much more powerful.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to get back for a second to this — you just happened to mention that remark that depending on whether this is being done, the social networking intelligence is being mined, internationally or domestically. Can the CIA conduct surveillance of Americans at home here, in terms of their communications?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Well, they’re not supposed to. But, I mean, given the recent history of the US intelligence agencies looking inward as well as outward, it’s tough to imagine they wouldn’t. Also, remember, on the internet, it’s very tough to discern whether it’s a purely international conversation or whether a purely domestic conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you say, “In-Q-Tel says it wants Visible to keep track of foreign social media, and give spooks ‘early-warning detection on how issues are playing internationally,’” but that tool can just be used inward?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: I mean, obviously, right? It’s the internet. There’s no — there’s no hard national borders, and all this stuff is already out in the public. So it’s a little hard to fathom that there wouldn’t at least be the temptation to use it domestically.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the military’s policy on soldiers using Twitter?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: The policy right now is up for grabs, but there should be a declared policy in the next, I would say, two to three weeks. And surprisingly, the Pentagon looks to be having a fairly liberal policy when it comes to Twitter and Facebook and other social networks. There was a lot of confusion over the years about whether soldiers could use it or not. Some commands banned it, others allowed it to happen. But it looks like the Pentagon is actually going to come out with something that says, “Hey, look, use YouTube and use Twitter, but just do it smart.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: But that has, certainly during the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war now, opened up a whole new level of communication that didn’t exist before, of ordinary soldiers being able to get information out to their family or to people here in the United States that normally would not happened in previous wars.

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And in this period of confusion where it wasn’t clear what the regulations were, a lot of times insecure commanders would sort of slap down their soldiers if they printed something that maybe was a little bit subversive or, you know, didn’t quite hew to the party line. But hopefully these new regulations are going to sort that out, and you really should be able to have those soldiers take to YouTube, take to Twitter, you know, with a great deal of freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Back to what you said at the beginning, saying the uses for Visible before, Visible tracking animal rights activists’ online campaigns against the company that was Hormel?


AMY GOODMAN: When it was working for Hormel. So, I see here you’ve got trillions of dollars being spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, actually trillions. And it seems like it’s very ripe and open money that can’t be tracked. It can also develop the spy technology under the guise of just war.

NOAH SHACHTMAN: That’s true, although the Pentagon also has plenty of money to — independent of the war costs, to develop spy technology. And the intelligence agencies, remember, their budgets are largely a black box. We don’t know how much they spend. And so, you know, there’s plenty of places where money for spy technology can be funded out of.

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of how Hormel used Visible, now In-Q-Tel buying into it?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Mm-hmm. Well, I mean, I don’t know too much more than the fact that they used it. I don’t have a lot of details. But, you know, the way Visible works is it kind of grabs all the blogs and all the tweets out there, then it sorts for certain key words, it sorts for a sentiment about whether things are positive or negative, and then it also sorts based on which bloggers and which tweeters are really important or not. And you can sort of see over time how a conversation develops. Technology then allows companies or the government to respond directly within a blog or within a Facebook page to those people. So, who knows? The commenter — the next commenter on your blog might be the CIA.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there. Noah Shachtman, I want to thank you for being with us. Noah Shachtman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, and he’s editor of “Danger Room,” the magazine’s national security blog.

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