CIA: It’s Not Surveillance, It’s Public Relations

How low is the Agency’s threshold for social media surveillance?

It’s something of an open secret that CIA, along with other agencies within the Intelligence Community, monitor social media feeds. In some ways, it’s an obvious necessity. Few would argue that an ISIS affiliated account shouldn’t be monitored, but for many the issue still presents a slippery slope. What do they monitor and when? Do they grab everything, or do they focus on threats? Some have suspected, and often be labeled as paranoid for it, that the Agency’s social media surveillance includes monitoring every mention of them online, regardless of whether it originates within the United States or not. It turns out they’re right.

It’s mostly completely legal. Kind of.

Before diving into the social media surveillance itself, it’s important to note that this is technically legal. While the Agency is forbidden from operating within the United States or fulfilling any domestic law enforcement duties, they are allowed leeway when it comes to protecting agency assets, personnel, facilities and cooperating with local or federal law enforcement. Protecting agency interests is the justification that was used for monitoring domestic protesters and protest movements as part of MHCHAOS, with the same argument being used in a less explicit fashion here. However, there’s an additional twist being employed here. The monitoring isn’t just surveillance for protection purposes – it’s public relations.

How does it work?

As it turns out, not very well.

Under this category, CIA is allowed to monitor any and every social media post that mentions them and isn’t explicitly made private. In some ways, this isn’t anything new. The Agency has, through its history, collected news clippings and open source materials from books, news footage and any other public source that was available to them. The internet, however, has changed the criteria for what’s public and nearly obliterated the concept of privacy. Once upon a time, telling your friends or colleagues about a news story wouldn’t be considered public. Now not only is that public enough for CIA to monitor and analyze, so is what you said, to how many people, along with details about favorites, retweets and replies.

CIA Tweet Table 1

You’ll notice that the Agency is tracking multiple tweets from the same account in several instances, which is a problem for their analytics method. At the end of that extract, several pages later, the Agency provides a set of totals. The totals are technically, sort of kind of, correct as calculated by a mindless machine. They count the number of followers for each account separately every time they tweet about the Agency, which produces a very misleading number for calculating the total audience.

CIA Tweet Table 2

In this instance, the total is number of “followers” is about a million too high. If they used this system to extract WikiLeaks’ tweets and analyze them right now, they would conclude the total audience for all of the tweets (~43,500) from the WikiLeaks Twitter account (~3,370,000 followers) as 146,595,000,000 – or about 20 times the total human population. (Congratulations on your apparently enormous extraterrestrial audience, WikiLeaks!)

The extract above is rather limited in what it looks at. Another one revealed in the declassified documents obtained by The Black Vault revealed at least 1,300 tweets were collected in about ten days. These tweets were filtered to include only ones mentioning the CIA Museum, so it remains unknown how many tweets the Agency collects on a daily basis. Like the extract above, this one is also flawed. While it doesn’t attempt to analyze audience size, it does appear to be in chronological order. However, a close examination reveals that it isn’t. If this is the same methodology that the Agency uses to analyze emerging events, it will unfortunately produce flawed results if analysts accept the apparent pretense that they are listed entirely in chronological order. This extract cuts off at exactly 1,300 tweets, giving the impression that it’s incomplete.

Who’s being monitored?

Beginning on the same page that the previous extract ends, there is a much smaller one covering only nineteen tweets. Among others the Twitter accounts belong to a subversive, an activist, a trader, a lawyer and at least one politician. It’s not clear why their tweets were segregated from the preceding list, though at least one of the accounts (the first one in this list) is listed as having been created after the tweet was sent, indicating the original account was deleted or changed its name. Another, Blogs of War, appears several times in the previous extract.

While there are other interesting revelations within the documents, such as the fact that the Agency’s official driving directions for reaching their HQ involves consulting Google Maps, or the fact that the Agency was extremely interested in pushing the Usama bin Laden AK-47 “much like in the movie Zero Dark Thirty,” by far the most important fact is that the Agency is closely monitoring mentions of itself online and saving tweets that mention it or link to news stories discussing the Agency, regardless of who sent the tweet. The fact that the Agency’s internal analytics system is so flawed almost makes their new contracts for social media mining comforting.

Dealing with dragnet surveillance of social media

In addition to FOIA requests, lawsuits and seeking legislative relief, there are essentially four ways that individuals can respond to this.

  1. Go on about your business on social media as you have before, without letting it affect you.
  2. Limit your exposure to this kind of monitoring by avoiding anything that might trigger one of their filters.
  3. Try to degrade the ability to effectively monitor social by triggering their filters as often as possible when you discuss politics, surveillance or intelligence agencies.
  4. Set your entire account to private or avoid social media entirely.

Personally, I prefer FOIA requests, lawsuits and legislative relief while not letting the monitoring affect me in the short run.

You can read the documents obtained by The Black Vault below.


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