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Are CIA and Google teaming up?
By BARBARA FERGUSON | ARAB NEWS
Published: Jul 29, 2010 23:05 Updated: Jul 29, 2010 23:05
WASHINGTON: Hey, all you folks who like to plaster all the details of your daily lives on YouTube, did you know that your videos could soon be scanned and evaluated for terror threats? Yes, thanks to a new project funded by the US intelligence community, they soon hope to create a searchable warehouse of open-source clips.
Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA, is behind the program called Automated Low-Level Analysis and Description of Diverse Intelligence Video (ALADDIN).
The advent of cell phone cams and online video hubs means thousands of clips are uploaded every day.
America's spy services have become increasingly interested in mining "open source intelligence" — information that's publicly available, but often hidden in the daily avalanche of TV shows, newspaper articles, blog posts, online videos and radio reports.
Until now, uploaded videos contain such diverse scenes and situations, not to mention grainy images and sound, that it's much harder to prep algorithms for automated evaluation. And human analysts only have so much time for the "eyes-on-video/ears-on-audio" routine.
Despite the challenge of analyzing uploaded videos, spy agencies appear to be already doing it. In 2008, the chief of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's Open Source Center noted that "YouTube ... carries some unique and honest-to-goodness intelligence."
But now, both the CIA and Google are said to be backing a company that monitors the Web in real time — and uses that information to predict the future.
Using data from websites and social networks, the company creates dossiers on people that may be key to intelligence officials. Their algorithms were allegedly able to prove Hezbollah was in possession of long-range missiles using a backlog of statements from the group's leader.
Experts cite the CIA's investment in the company as indication their technology will be used by intelligence.
The company is called Recorded Future, and it scours tens of thousands of websites, blogs and Twitter accounts to find the relationships between people, organizations, actions and incidents — both present and still-to-come.
The company says its temporal analytics engine "goes beyond search" by "looking at the 'invisible links' between documents that talk about the same or related entities and events."
For example, they take an incident and try to decipher who was involved and where it happened.
Recorded Future alleges it can then plot that chatter, showing online "momentum" for any given event.
"The cool thing is, you can actually predict the curve, in many cases," company CEO Christopher Ahlberg, a former Swedish Army Ranger with a Ph.D. in computer science, told WIRED, which broke the story on Thursday.
Interestingly, this is not the first time Google has done business with America's spy agencies. In-Q-Tel backed the mapping firm Keyhole, which was bought by Google in 2004 — and then became the backbone for Google Earth.
This appears to be the first time, however, that the intelligence community and Google have funded the same startup, at the same time.
As yet, Google has not been accused of directly collaborating with the CIA. But the investments are bound to be fodder for critics of Google, who already see the search giant as working too closely with the US government.
US spy agencies, through In-Q-Tel, have invested in a number of firms to help them better find that information. One company trawls over half a million websites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon.
Keyhole, now Google Earth, is a staple of the targeting cells in military-intelligence units.
In some corners, the scrutiny of the company's political ties have dovetailed with concerns about how Google collects and uses its enormous storehouse of search data, e-mail, maps and online documents. Google, as we all know, keeps a titanic amount of information about every aspect of our online lives. Customers largely have trusted the company so far, because of the quality of their products, and because of Google's pledges not to misuse the information still ring true to many.
But unease has been growing.
"Assurances from the likes of Google that the company can be trusted to respect consumers' privacy because its corporate motto is 'don't be evil' have been shown by recent events such as the 'Wi-Spy' debacle to be unwarranted," long-time corporate critic John Simpson told a congressional hearing.
Ryan Calo, a fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, is concerned as to how the information will be used to target suspected terrorists.
"Are we trusting Google to be experts enough in terrorist propaganda to know what to take down?" Calo told reporters. "That seems like a really extraordinary difficult calculus to make. And in the absence of a definitive answer, let's err on the side of free speech. On the side of neutrality of communications."
Others argue that one can never get rid of violent propaganda on the Internet, but all should be done to make such material harder to find.