FBI seeks to use apps to predict terrorist acts

There seems to be a smart phone application for just about everything, be it storm alerts or GPS navigation. Most recently, however, the United States government began to push for its own terrorism app that would not only track terrorist threats, but also predict foreign uprisings.

The idea sprang up in response to the hundreds of intelligence personnel working daily to examine Facebook and Twitter posts in an effort to track foreign occurrences. The apparent intent of this new technology, as outlined in a formal request for information by the FBI, is to mechanize this process.

This would include analyzing every existing form of social media, but its idea goes deeper than simply studying posts by web users. The proposed app would also be able to track web searches, Wikipedia edits and traffic cameras, but would also focus on monitoring information on social media sites that would potentially affect military soldiers.

"Social media has emerged to be the first instance of communication about a crisis, trumping traditional first responders that included police, firefighters, [emergency medical technicians] and journalists," the FBI wrote in its request. "Social media is rivaling 911 services in crisis response and reporting."

Some, like Ginger McCall, director of the open government project at the Washington, D.C. based Electronic Privacy Information Center, are troubled by the thought of being so closely observed under the government’s watchful eye. McCall is concerned also with the effect that this may have on users of social network sites.

“Any time that you have to worry about the federal government following you around peering over your shoulder listening to what you’re saying, it’s going to affect the way you speak and the way that you act,’’ McCall said in a statement to the Associated Press.

Emily Ritter, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, has a different perspective on the issue.

“Much of what people post on social media or networking sites is publicly available for people to see,” Ritter said. “For the government to monitor those interactions and look for information in them is perfectly legal and [is] not an invasion of privacy. It's like writing on a billboard and saying people shouldn't look at it and draw conclusions from it.

“Anyone could use Twitter to gather the kind of information for which the government seems to be looking. The trouble arises if the development of technology that makes it easier to monitor information on public sites also makes it easier to do things that are invasions of rights or privacy.”

Alan Alexander, a sophomore studying journalism and political science, questions how effective the app would be in identifying terrorist threats.

“I feel that, if a terrorist were planning something, they wouldn’t use [social media],” Alexander said. “I would definitely be more careful with how I used [social media] if they made the app.”

Despite controversies about privacy issues, many government workers, like Ross Stapleton-Gray, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst turned technology consultant, remain positive about the possibilities of such an app.

"It really ought to be the golden age of intelligence collection in that you've got people falling all over themselves trying to express who they are," Stapleton-Gray told the Associated Press.

There are a few technological barriers, however, inhibiting the FBI’s app idea from becoming a reality. The most difficult challenge at the moment is figuring out a way to teach computers to decipher between essential and useless information.

William McCants, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses and former State Department official who now monitors al-Qaeda propaganda online, believes that the FBI and other agencies may become too dependent on technology. He fears that automated analysts won’t be able to sort through important information with the same accuracy of a real person.

"The more data you use and the more complicated the software, the more likely it is you will confirm a well-known banality," McCants told the Associated Press. "You didn't need to be on Twitter to know that a revolution was happening in Egypt"

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