CIA’s Idea of Digital Innovation: Attempt (and Fail) to Buy an Existing News Service

A week ago Sunday, the WSJ reported that Twitter had cut off an In-Q-Tel funded company, Dataminr, from sharing data with the intelligence community.

Twitter Inc. cut off U.S. intelligence agencies from access to a service that sifts through the entire output of its social-media postings, the latest example of tension between Silicon Valley and the federal government over terrorism and privacy.

The move, which hasn’t been publicly announced, was confirmed by a senior U.S. intelligence official and other people familiar with the matter.

Twitter spokesperson Nu Wexler told me this is actually long-standing policy.

Dataminr uses public Tweets to sell breaking news alerts to media organizations such as Dow Jones and government agencies such as the World Health Organization, for non-surveillance purposes. We have never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes. This is a longstanding Twitter policy, not a new development.

Indeed, as CNBC reported later in the week, this has been something the IC has been badgering Twitter about since September. Just as interesting, CNBC reports that CIA’s OSINT center wants the data.

It has not been clear exactly which entity in the vast U.S. intelligence apparatus was involved in the dispute with Twitter, but sources tell CNBC that it was a division of the CIA known as Open Source Enterprise. According to the CIA’s website, that unit is a part of the CIA’s directorate of digital innovation. It was created in the wake of recommendations by both the 9-11 Commission and the Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission that CIA focus more effort on gathering “open source” information — data that is available to anyone in the public, as opposed to information that can only be gathered through covert means.

 

Which raises even more questions for me about the timing of the request, and of these misleading claims from anonymous intelligence officials. Why go public now? It’s not like CIA is any more popular than it was six months ago (though it’s possible the pressure is tied to CIA’s reorganization).

As far as the request, it’s interesting CIA never made this demand after the Arab Spring, which CIA missed entirely because it was listening to Omar Suleiman rather than watching social media like the rest of us. That would have been the moment to make this case (I assume CIA and FBI both use more targeted tracking of ISIS Twitter).

Instead, the request seems more likely tied to the roll out of the larger organization, CIA’s new McKinsey-recommended Directorate of Digital Innovation last October. I would have thought that a claimed commitment to developing digital expertise would have led CIA to set up its own scraping system, rather than trying to purchase the same service news outlets use (to questionable value, according to some people commenting on this). Unless, of course, CIA’s goal is Dataminr’s “firehose,” including all Americans’ Twitter.

This incident ought to raise two questions: one why is CIA lying to ratchet pressure up on Twitter. And two, what the heck is the Digital Innovation Center for if this is the kind of “innovation” they’re seeking?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

3 replies
  1. arbusto says:

    How many agency’s and directorates are needed to parse every site, voice, text and phrase to capture a diminishing number terrorists and bad people. Good thing were have such and effective DNI to coordinate the dissemination and analysis of this burgeoning, if seemingly ineffectual infrastructure.

  2. bloopie2 says:

    Speaking of freedom of the press. Some good news has some with the announcement of a $60 million grant to promote the First Amendment in the digital era. The money comes in equal parts from Columbia University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the funding will be used for research as well as to support the press in free speech litigation.
    .
    http://www.knightfoundation.org/press-room/press-release/knight-foundation-columbia-university-launch-first/

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