Buried in a news article Tuesday is a nugget of a story that could send privacy advocates reeling: the CIA is planning to increase spying on Facebook pages and tweets.
What’s more, the plan to increase cyber espionage has set of an intradepartmental feud. According to the Washington Post, the head of the agency’s clandestine service recently resigned, in part over objections to the plan. CIA director John Brennan “quickly replaced him with a longtime officer who had led an internal review panel that broadly endorsed [his] reform agenda.”
The CIA has long spied on Facebook and Twitter in its research on foreign governments and potential terrorists. The agency’s cyber espionage arm employs staff with master’s degrees in library science and languages who try to detect trends of public opinion; reportedly they caught whiff of the recent Egyptian uprising before it occurred. It also oversees the “Open Source Center,” which is charged with scouring publicly available data.
Yet, while the CIA (like its brother, the National Security Agency) isn’t supposed to spy on Americans, it certainly does, according to its own data. A report provided to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) in 2013 remarked:
In calendar year 2013, CIA conducted fewer than 1900 queries of Section 702-acquired communications using specific U.S. person identifiers as query terms or other more general query terms if they are intended to return information about a particular U.S. person. Of that total number approximately 40% were conducted as a result of requests for counterterrorism-related information from other U.S. intelligence agencies. Approximately 27% of the total number are duplicative or recurring queries conducted at different times using the same identifiers but that CIA nonetheless counts as separate queries. CIA also uses U.S. person identifiers to conduct metadata-only queries against metadata derived from the FISA Section 702 collection. However, the CIA does not track the number of metadata-only queries using U.S. person identifiers.
Is this CIA’s focus potential terrorists? Yes. But if their past practices are any example — that of the Nixon era, for example, or more recently their “work” with alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and other foreign jails — their increased focus on Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t be written off.