The Associated Press published a report today detailing, for the first time, a unit within the CIA, referring to itself as the ‘vengeful librarians,’ that is responsible for monitoring the vast and various social networks, local and international news, radio, and television, Internet chat rooms, and pretty much anything from which they can procure intelligence.
The unit is part of the CIA’s Open Source Center. Their goal is to monitor every facet of the internet in every imaginable language, cross-referencing that information with local news reports and information gleaned in the more traditional, cloak-and-dagger, spy-type espionage. Much of the information, according to the AP, ends up in the hands of White House officials and even in President Obama’s daily intelligence briefings.
Security experts have long suspected that the growing social net was part of the intelligence community’s open source information gathering. Speaking at the SOURCE Boston conference in 2010, researcher Moxie Marlinspike likened Google’s aggregation of data to the Department of Defense’s now-notorious “Total Information Awareness” plan. However, the report is the first public admission by the CIA that – yes – spooks are eyeballing your Tweets and Facebook Wall posts for valuable information.
The center’s director, Doug Naquin told the AP that his team of open source analysts foresaw many of the uprisings that are now raging across the Middle East, predicting that Social Media would play a pivotal role, and even threaten regimes in places like Egypt.
The facility was reportedly established in response to a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The classified number of analysts, hundreds of them, are primarily focused on counter terrorism and counter proliferation, but, as Kimberly Dozier of the AP puts it, they “track a broad range [of things], from Chinese Internet access to the mood on the street in Pakistan.”
The analysts are diverse. There are hackers, a number of them have master’s degrees in library science, and almost all of them either speak, or better yet, grew up speaking a foreign language. As tweets and other Internet postings don’t necessarily reveal an exact geographic location, open source analysts use their knowledge of native language to better infer locations based on dialects and other linguistic identifiers.
In addition to monitoring intelligence-type stuff, the Open Source Center also monitors international public opinion and is even beginning to track the results of polling organizations against data pulled from their observation of the Web. Naquin acknowledges that their surveillance and polling efforts may disproportionately represent the urban elite, among whom social networking is more popular.
Dozier describes the ‘vengeful librarians’ working “in an anonymous industrial park in Virginia, in an unassuming brick-building.” (If you’ve seen the legion of industrial parks with their windowless, unmarked buildings and seemingly empty parking lots on the fringes of the Northern Virginia-DC Metropolitan area, then you know exactly what kind of place she’s describing.) While most are reportedly based in the Commonwealth of Virginia, there’s also a handful of analysts scattered about at any number of US Embassies abroad, according to the report.