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How Intelligence Agencies Are Using Social Media

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

 

On July 17th, 2014, Malaysian Airline Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. According to an article in Today Online, social media helped identify who was responsible for the terrifying attack: in the days following the incident, a group of Internet sleuths established that pro-Russian separatists were responsible for the airline crash. 

How did they do this? 

The group, including journalist Eliot Higgins, searched social media and other open source information, collecting photo evidence to support this conclusion.

The Dutch Safety Board confirmed accusations that the Buk missile used in the attack originated in Russia. The power of this public evidence became clear as the investigation unfolded, ultimately leading to charges against four individuals in June 2019. This investigation is just one example of how social media and other popular communication platforms are transforming how intelligence agencies obtain critical data.

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Today Online Article photo Photo from Today Online article

Social Media Is a Key Source for Intelligence Agencies

It’s no secret that intelligence agencies rely heavily on social media and other open source intelligence (OSINT) to gather critical information about terrorist groups and criminal threats. Over the past decade, online open source intelligence has become a significant source of actionable data. Social media has been used to identify suspects and key eyewitnesses to some of the most notable and tragic recent events worldwide. 

In concert with consolidated satellite imagery, social media has been used to solve investigations around the world, including MH17. Open source intelligence has successfully built cases against accused radical groups, singled out suspects in school shootings, and investigated Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Social Media also allows agencies to observe global public sentiment and political climates—for example, how people in foreign countries respond to the US President. Which tools are government agencies utilizing to search the Internet for valuable information?

Tools Don’t Have To Be Secret To Have Value

Most government agencies have in-house teams that have developed proprietary software designed to sift through content noise on the web. However, there are many platforms that even amateur analysts can use to access valuable material. Many of these platforms have been featured in online publications. For example, in a Bellingcat article, journalist Eliot Higgins explains how platforms such as Google Earth, (the former) Yomapic, and Echosec can contextualize events, past or present.

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Images taken from Echosec | Search location: Rigonce, Slovenia

None of these platforms require users to obtain secret clearance to look more closely at hard news, such as the state of refugee camps between Croatia and Slovenia, or the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. Social media gives agencies better access to data that would have required a field agent to obtain. It also gives citizens and journalists access to information that might otherwise be hidden by the mainstream media or governments.

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Images taken from Echosec, October 2019 | Search location: Hong Kong

Data Overload

Intelligence agencies in the US have been struggling with an “information overload” since the Cold War—one can only imagine what that overload must look like now, in the Internet age. The variability, speed, and sheer volume of information provided by social media is a challenge as much as it is a strength for intelligence analysts.

Large amounts of data means there is a lot of room for noise and misinformation. Information must not only be contextualized and connected, but also systematically sorted as it flows into the hands of analysts. There’s also the challenge of deciphering cultural nuances and foreign languages (90-95% of OSINT is non-English). Finding personnel with these skills in addition to knowing how to use OSINT tools is not an easy task.

These challenges present a growing demand for sophisticated analytics tools that fill personnel gaps and lighten the burden of sorting through vast amounts of data—much of which is irrelevant for investigations.

OSINT on the Dark Web

Beyond social media, there is also a vast amount of valuable intelligence available to agencies on the deep web and dark web. This information can be critical for investigating crimes, from mass shootings to drug and human trafficking. These sources add another challenge to agencies: how to find critical data on unindexed and anonymous areas of the web.

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Social media and other sources of OSINT are a critical data source for intelligence agencies. Even though many of the tools used to access this information are available to anyone, handling this vast and variable data source means that more sophisticated data analytics tools are in demand. Access to public information on social media continues to change the way intelligence agencies obtain information, and ultimately has the power to change how the public sees the world.

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