by Don Reisinger
November 4, 2011
Don Reisinger is a technology
columnist who has written about everything from HDTVs to computers
to Flowbee Haircut Systems.
Don is a member of the CNET
Blog Network, posting at The Digital Home.
He is not an employee of CNET.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
has established a compound in Virginia
that focuses on one very important aspect of
international espionage: social network spying.
According to the Associated Press, which
was provided some insight into the CIA's operations, the Open Source Center
a team also known as the "vengeful librarians," analyzes up to 5 million
tweets a day to gauge public opinion around the world.
The group also 'examines' messages shared via Facebook and comments made in Internet chat rooms, in addition to listening
in on more traditional forms of information dissemination, such as TV news
channels and local radio stations.
But before U.S.-based privacy advocates get too concerned about the CIA's
practices, it's worth noting that the entirety of its actions, the center's
director, Doug Naquin, told the AP, centers on the examination of social
activity in other countries.
The U.S. government is barred by law from spying on tweets, Facebook
messages, or e-mails sent by U.S. citizens without a warrant.
According to the AP, the Open Source Center was first established after the
9/11 attacks to combat international terrorism. But now, the group told the
AP, its focus goes far beyond a focus on terrorism, and examines public
opinion on a host of matters around the world.
For example, the group told the AP, it provided information to "the highest
levels at the White House" on the Middle East's reaction to this year's
killing of Osama bin Laden. The group told the AP that it found that the
majority of Urdu tweets and Chinese tweets were negative, seeming to
indicate that the Pakistani people and Chinese were not pleased with the
After President Obama announced bin Laden's
death, reactions on social networks were negative in several countries in
the Middle East.
The stakes appear to be high for the vengeful librarians. According to the
AP, their analyses of tweets, messages, and other citizen reactions around
the world find their way into the President's daily briefings, and thus,
play a role in his decision-making.
However, even though the intelligence community has continued to say that it
doesn't engage in any spying of U.S. citizen communications, not everyone is
In 2009, for example, Greg Nojeim, an attorney for the Center for Democracy
sat down with CNET to discuss the possibility of the U.S.
government spying on its citizens' online communications.
As far as he was concerned at the time, the U.S.
could spy on its citizens, although there was no way to prove that it does,
in fact, do so.
"Who wants to live in a world where the
government can listen in on every communication without any evidence of
crime?" Nojeim said.
"The consequences of that are that people
won't communicate freely and the country would be very different as a
result. Imagine how your conversation with a close personal friend would
change if you knew someone else was listening. That's what is at stake.
That's what needs to be protected."
Julian Assange, the founder of
has exposed U.S. diplomatic cables, videos from the wars, and more, is also
concerned that some of the most prominent online companies -
Google, among others - are
tools for the government to be used for access to
any kind of information they want.
"Facebook in particular is the most
appalling spying machine that has ever been invented," Assange said
an interview with Russian news site RT earlier this year.
"Here we have the world's most comprehensive
database about people, their relationships, their names, their
addresses, their locations and the communications with each other, their
relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to U.S.
Assange went on to say that the companies,
"have built-in interfaces for U.S.
"It's not a matter of serving a subpoena," Assange told RT. "They have
an interface that they have developed for U.S. intelligence to use."
It's worth noting, however, that neither those
companies Assange mentioned nor the U.S. intelligence community have ever
confirmed that they are working in cahoots to spy on people.