Today NPR ran a piece on University of Buffalo Computer scientist Rohini Srihari who is developing automated translation software which can be aimed at social networks allowing english speaking folk to read non-english tweets. Maybe this sounds benign, after all Google Chrome has some of this ability built in. In another tab as I write I have a french web-page open which Chrome translated for me into semi-readable text. It's really useful having automated language translation because it can help us connect more readily with each other over the Internet. So why did I put an alarmist title on this post? It's because of the Dept of Defense Total Information Awareness system, and that Dr. Srihari's research is funded by the U.S. Military.
In case you've forgotten what TIA is, this occurred several dozen alarming revelations ago in the months after GW Bush was elected and remained public until some time in 2002. The TIA project was headed by (ret) Admiral Poindexter (the guy convicted of lying to congress during the Iran-Contra period) to apply modern datamining technology to national security intelligence activities. The intent is to create an all-encompassing system of tracking a huge amount of information (total information awareness), look for "patterns" indicating nefarious activities, and nip them in the bud early.
This was one of the first articles I posted way back in 2002: DARPA's Information Awareness Office, The Total Information Awareness System; Or, Big Brother in-carnate ... The Defense Department pages referenced are no longer public, but I did a comprehensive summary of the program.
Dr. Rohini's project doesn't fit neatly into the projects cited under the TIA umbrella back in 2002, however many of the projects were associated with language translation. This way the US Intelligence Community could hire anybody, rather than rely on language/social experts, for intelligence analysts.
As the NPR piece said: "One way to follow what's going on in the Middle East and South Asia right now is through social media — Facebook, Twitter and blog posts." This is called "open source intelligence" or intelligence gathering from sources out in the open.
Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are awesome but one side effect is they force global social conversations to be conducted in the open where "anybody" can listen in. While that's kinda cool in the light of creating more connection between everyone on a global scale, it does mean that spies can snoop on everything.
What if, for example, the spies are looking for signs of an impending uprising against a brutal dictator who happens to be friendly to the United States, and receives lots of United States funding and equipment and training which increases the effectiveness of that dictators military forces? The U.S. routinely does this, support government leaders who are brutal to their people. Mubarak, the recently deposed leader of Egypt, was one of those brutal dictators.
What will the U.S. spies do if they notice the impending uprising? Stand back and applaud the revolution? Or do something that will help the brutal dictator stay in power? If the U.S. has invested so much money in maintaining a particular government structure (no matter how brutal) wouldn't they act to protect their investment?
As Dr. Rohini said: "What I want is to determine who are the people, places and things being talked about," she says. "Is there an opinion being expressed? Is it a positive or negative opinion being expressed?" And... "And when you are able to figure out what the topic of the conversation is," she says, "what kind of sentiment is being expressed around that, that's the goal of what we are trying to do." And... "So in Twitter posts and tweets and so on, if there's specific factual information that's being mentioned — they want that extracted," Srihari says. "There's also definitely an interest in sentiment and opinion mining."
Who's to say that foreigners speaking their local languages aren't the only group being targeted by the total information vacuuming project? Perhaps they're also vacuuming up social network conversations by Americans? Don't believe me? See: Twitter Tapping - government agents tracking public information
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