In search for foreign intelligence, spies turn to YouTube, MySpace, blogs
With rapidly advancing technology spreading across the globe, US spies are shifting their focus from surreptitiously photographing secret Soviet documents to trolling the Internet for what could be the next key nugget of foreign intelligence.
Among the most valuable sources, one top spook says, are blogs, MySpace and other Web 2.0 hallmarks.
"We're looking now at YouTube, which carries some unique and honest-to-goodness intelligence," Doug Naquin, director of the CIA's Open Source Center said in a recent speech to CIA retirees.
The speech was posted this week on SecrecyNews, the blog of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy.
"I would not have thought of YouTube as an obvious source of intelligence," Steven Aftergood, the project's director, told InfromationWeek, "but I think it's a good sign that the Open Source Center is looking at it, and at other new media."
Open source intelligence collection focuses on compiling and analyzing unclassified data from publicly available sources for use by the CIA, policy makers and other law enforcement agencies. Formerly known as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, the Open Source Center's mission in recent years has shifted from translating newspaper and television reports from abroad to culling the Web for information on foreign targets. The center trains intelligence agents and others in government.
"This training includes everything from media analysis to advanced Internet exploitation, way beyond Googling," Naquin said.
The goal of open-source collection is to provide information that goes beyond what appears in the morning newspaper, and analysis of Web 2.0 content has become a key part of that, he said.
"A couple years back we identified Iranian blogs as a phenomenon worthy of more attention, about six months ahead of anybody else," he said.
Now even Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has his own blog.
"We're looking at chat rooms and things that didn't even exist five years ago, and trying to stay ahead," Naquin said. "We have groups looking at what they call 'Citizens Media': people taking pictures with their cell phones and posting them on the Internet. Then there's Social Media, phenomena like MySpace and blogs."
With the end of the Cold War, Naquin said open source collection became a low priority in the Intelligence Community, causing the FBIS staff to be cut in half during the 90s. The terror attacks aimed at New York and Washington changed all that.
"[Nine-Eleven] was sort of a watershed for us," Naquin said. "The 9/11 Commission and WMD Commission both said, 'You know what? There are a lot of open sources out there. We should be putting a lot more attention toward exploiting those sources."
Naquin's full speech is available here (.pdf).