Venerable internet repository Cryptome has released a list of social media web sites that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) monitors to gauge the mood of the online populace.
The document lists 96 sites, including social media, blogs and news aggregators, which have been monitored since January 2011. Almost all require no password to access – the two exceptions being Facebook and Twitter.
“The Department of Homeland Security’s National Operations Center (NOC) employs social media monitoring for situational awareness purposes only, within the clearly defined parameters articulated in our Privacy Impact Assessment, to ensure that critical information reaches appropriate decision-makers,” Chris Ortman, DHS spokesman told The Register.
The doctrine of situational awareness is as old as the hills - Sun Tzu espoused it over 2,000 years ago with: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
In days gone by intelligence agencies had people on the ground to measure this kind of public mood, usually embassy staff or paid stringers who would send in memos on the state of play. This was expensive, occasionally dangerous and often highly inaccurate, as the surprise among Western intelligence agencies showed at the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Nowadays it’s much simpler. With so many people posting their thoughts online all that is needed is a few people in front of monitors and some fairly basic web tools - the biggest problem is filtering out all the dross. Plenty of companies offer this kind of service and El Reg wonders how well the DHS would stand up to competitors in the market if tested.
According to people familiar with the matter the monitoring covers a variety of purposes, but it's mainly basic information gathering. The inclusion of sites like Google Flu Trends and Healthmap.org show an interest in disease tracking. It's also handy for disasters - news of last year's East Coast earthquake traveled faster on Twitter than the shockwaves them themselves. Some bright spark is even getting getting paid to watch Hulu and YouTube videos for a living. ®