Would NSA’s New Big Social Media Data Approach Have Noticed the Arab Spring?

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 10.02.29 PMSometime in 2011, I was on a panel with the Democracy Now’s Sharif Kouddous — whose tweeting from Tahrir Square played an important role in keeping the world informed after Hosni Mubarak shut down the Internet. I mentioned that DiFi had been bitching for months because the CIA and other intelligence agencies had missed the Arab Spring.

Who had followed Sharif on Twitter, I asked? (Probably half the rather large room raised their hands.) Because if you had, you knew more about the Arab Spring than the CIA did.

Which is the underlying context to the NBC/Greenwald report that GCHQ collects data from Facebook and YouTube to try to monitor the mood of the world.

The demonstration showed that by using tools including a version of commercially available analytic software called Splunk, GCHQ could extract information from the torrent of electronic data that moves across fiber optic cable and display it graphically on a computer dashboard. The presentation showed that analysts could determine which videos were popular among residents of specific cities, but did not provide information on individual social media users.

The presenters gave an example of their real-time monitoring capability, showing the Americans how they pulled trend information from YouTube, Facebook and blog posts on Feb. 13, 2012, in advance of an anti-government protest in Bahrain the following day.

More than a year prior to the demonstration, in a 2012 annual report, members of Parliament had complained that the U.K.’s intelligence agencies had missed the warning signs of the uprisings that became the Arab Spring of 2011, and had expressed the wish to improve “global” intelligence collection.

During the presentation, according to a note on the documents, the presenters noted for their audience that “Squeaky Dolphin” was not intended for spying on specific people and their internet behavior. The note reads, “Not interested in individuals just broad trends!”

What we’re seeing is how NSA would go about amassing public data to try to learn what the rest of us can read by following Twitter attentively. [see update]

I won’t comment much on the technical ability here (which involve contractors to collect the data), and I’ll only applaud that Facebook has finally been exposed as the perfect surveillance app it is.

But there seem to be several problems with the analysis they’re doing (though MSNBC did not include the script for its PowerPoint). Aside from what seems to be an Orientalism built into the analysis…

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And some half-assed PsychoLOLogy…

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Nowhere does this presentation distinguish between the propaganda social media accounts and the legitimate ones — a known problem of social media analysis going back years (which has, because of the all the competing parties involved, been particularly acute in Syria). Perhaps they deal with this, but this analysis seems ripe for spamming by propaganda, particularly if it came from frenemies who know GCHQ and NSA use such analysis.

Now, presumably someone somewhere else in the combined Intelligence Communities of the US and UK would actually sit down and read the social media of a potential hotspot, which is the way a bunch of Tweeps in their pajamas can get a sense of what’s going on without collecting all the social media data for an entire country first. Such an approach uses the hive mind you acquire on social media, with the built in assurances from trusted interlocutors.

After the Arab Spring, the Intelligence Communities of a number of nations got their asses kicked because none of them are well suited to figure out what non-elites are doing. But from the looks of things, they just hired some contractors with bad attitudes to have something to offer up, no matter how dubiously effective.

Update: My statement was inaccurate. They got this data by tapping the cables.

12 replies
  1. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Shorter: there is no way to predict what is going to happen even a second before it happens.

    And that is the massive misconception behind NSA surveillance, that it can be used to predict and therefore to defend against a future event.

    Why is it the NSA has NO success stories after all this surveillance? Because it is impossible to predict the future.

    Once that is accepted then the whole surveillance-will-keep-us-safe fantasy can be seen for the fairytale it is.

    In thinking about it a bit further, surveillance is not a defensive strategy. It is an offensive strategy that must be accompanied with offensive actions to be of any value. Which would explain why all the FBI sting operations are so dubious. Only through FBI manipulation can their surveillance be guaranteed to result in the outcome that is desired by the FBI.

    Surveillance engenders abuse. It really has got to go!

  2. GKJames says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): Agreed, though I think it goes beyond an inability to predict. The USG is drowning in information but incapable of translating it into more enlightened and rational policies. We’re talking parallel universes where stupendous amounts of fact are collected in one part of government but virtually unused and unusable by other parts (exept, of course, by the republic’s ultimate opportunists, federal prosecutors).

    Which suggests an utterly banal dynamic we’re seeing: a national security apparatus — beyond meaningful control by Congress, the courts, and even the Executive it serves — does what it does because it can and because no one dares rein it in. In other words, the game’s not about security, commercial advantage, or crime-fighting, but purely about power. Even more so now that the apparatus’s activities have been exposed, because now it’s personal; how dare someone (a) inform the public that’s compelled to fund this buffoonery; and (b) question what we’re doing. Any limit sought would be seen as a surrender, as would anything other than perpetual incarceration for Snowden.

  3. rosalind says:


    And “The USG is drowning in information but incapable of translating” it – literally, cause none of those billions spent ever seem go to securing an adequate number of translators.

  4. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    I’m sure that current social media analysis tools could have helped the NSA with the Arab Spring. But it’s not like you can put up a big map of the world as an analytic product and suddenly it starts pulsing red in the mideast. You have to have some idea what you’re looking for first. And if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it.

  5. rosalind says:

    kinda-related: in today’s local chapter of “collect it all”, a new company is selling its services to local school districts to monitor all student social media and submit daily reports on anything suspicious.

    “The company’s computers scour an untold number of public posts by students. When they find posts they think should spur an intervention or anything that violates schools’ student codes of conduct, the company alerts the campus.

    The district does not provide a list of students to the company. Instead, it uses ‘deductive reasoning’ to link public accounts to students, said Chris Frydrych, founder and chief executive of Geo Listening. He declined to be more specific.”

    I looked at the company’s terms of service, and it says the info it compiles is not used for any other purpose EXCEPT if the company is sold that info goes with it. Sooo, count-down begins until Geo Listening sells itself off, and all that info gets dumped into someone else’s profit-driven hands.


  6. emptywheel says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: That’s why I think the PsychoLOLgraphy matters, and I don’t think this is tailored to understanding much about Arab culture (though admitted we don’t have the script).

  7. What Constitution? says:

    Not sure which is, all in all, worse — relying on the Government “information division” to choose the right tweets to listen to in order to track and interpret world events, or paying this kind of $$ to set up this kind of Powerpoint-described “system” to “understand” emerging world events through haystack-interpreting. Either way, it’s definitionally too little, too late. Then again, maybe it is still useful to the extent it keeps large numbers of these people busy and away from buttons of all kinds, since either of these options seems so much better than the FBI’s penchant for trying to set up sting operations to nail the sporadic numbskull in a way that gets splashed in our faces as “protecting the Homeland”.

  8. JohnT says:

    First of all, I don’t wanna go off on a tangent, but the CIA orchestrated Arab Spring using Gene Sharp’s techniques.

    Back to the subject, if the NSA missed it, it was because of xenophobic cultural reasons. The technology is there and they do use it

    EFF Sues CIA, DOJ, Others Over Facebook Surveillance


    N.S.A. Gathers Data on Social Connections of U.S. Citizens


  9. rosalind says:

    @P J Evans: still are, they have expanded the program to the entire district while the head of the company pitches his services Nationwide to “keep the children safe”.

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