New Scientist magazine published an interesting story on Friday that provocatively suggests that the NSA is turning its attention to the data mining of social-networking sites such as MySpace and Friendster:
New Scientist has discovered that Pentagon’s National Security Agency, which specialises in eavesdropping and code-breaking, is funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks.
….By adding online social networking data to its phone analyses, the NSA could connect people at deeper levels, through shared activities, such as taking flying lessons. Typically, online social networking sites ask members to enter details of their immediate and extended circles of friends, whose blogs they might follow. People often list other facets of their personality including political, sexual, entertainment, media and sporting preferences too.
The article has triggered a predictably worried reaction in the blogosphere. But is the NSA really “setting its sights on social networking websites,” as the headline suggests? The lone piece of evidence for this claim in the article is a research paper by two university academics on “Semantic Analysis of Social Networks” which was partially funded by ARDA, the NSA’s research arm. But what does that prove? The NSA funds hundreds (if not thousands) of academics, and not always in a way that is directed toward an actionable goal. There’s no direct evidence in the article that the NSA is moving forward to implement this.
But even if the NSA were going after this objective, so what? The contents of sites like Friendster and MySpace are publicly-available information – caveat poster. While I can’t imagine that there would be much value from the data analysis of social networking sites in isolation, there perhaps could be some positive intelligence value from relating this kind of analysis to other legal means of analysis. It certainly seems wise and appropriate for the NSA to research this and determine if there would be value from this type of analysis.
Update (6/12): The Sydney Morning Herald picks up the story.
Update 2 (6/12): Read this good analysis of the New Scientist piece by Ryan Singel over at 27BStroke6.