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The FBI wants the ultimate news program

The FBI wants the ultimate news program

Posting in Design

Can you design a program to search news sites and social media for "breaking events and emerging threats," filter the results, and geospatially map them? The FBI wants you.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation wants to be more tapped in to breaking news via social media, and it's looking for the ultimate all-in-one program to find, vet, sort, and map news as it happens. The Strategic Information and Operations Center at the agency is now accepting applications -- for the emphasized purpose of "market research" -- for a vendor to design and run such a program.

The detailed Request for Information (PDF) notes that the FBI "has a need to enhance its techniques for collecting and sharing 'open source' actionable intelligence."

The program they desire needs to have several components:

  • Search social media (noting Twitter, Facebook and MySpace) and mainstream news websites for keywords defined by the agency. An FBI spokesperson told US News Weekly that the keywords would include such terms as "lockdown, bomb, suspicious package, white powder, active shoot."
  • Employ automated filtering to vet results, selecting only the most relevant to national security needs.
  • Map selected events geospatially with additional US and worldwide terror, consulate, weather and traffic data, paying special attention to "bad actors or groups."
  • Create alerts and reports automatically.

The request focuses quite tightly on Twitter, aspiring towards a program that can monitor all tweets, including being able to search within bounded geographical areas. Additionally, the FBI requests "reference documents such as a dictionary of 'tweet' lingo" -- which is probably the funniest thing I've read all day.

Jokes aside, some privacy experts are expressing concern about what this request for proposals means for freedom of speech, according to US News Weekly:

"It is evidence the FBI is seeking to investigate ordinary Americans who are suspected of no crime without any criminal predicate," says John Verdi, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "This program is, almost on its face, unlikely to be effective. And it poses the real risk that free speech will be chilled if individuals believe the government and law enforcement agents are reviewing their posts."

But even experts can't help but crack a few jokes in response to the idea. "I'd be very careful about saying 'That show last night was the bomb,'" said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of comparative media studies Ian Condry said to US News Weekly.

Photo: FBI/Wikimedia

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure