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CIA Tracks Public Information For The Private Eye

Douglas Caddy

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CIA Tracks Public Information For The Private Eye

by Rachel Martin

National Public Radio

January 22, 2012

Listen to the Story


Weekend Edition Sunday

Secrets: the currency of spies around the world.

The rise of social media, hash-tags, forums, blogs and online news sites has revealed a new kind of secret — those hiding in plain sight. The CIA calls all this information "open source" material, and it's changing the way America's top spy agency does business.

NPR recently got a rare behind-the-scenes look at the CIA's Open Source Center. It operates on the down-low, though it deals with public material. We aren't allowed to tell you where the Open Source Center is. All we can say is that it's housed in an unmarked and unremarkable office building just off a nondescript, busy street.

My producer and I were asked to leave our phones in our car. We were ushered inside to a small room with half a dozen analysts working at cubicles, their eyes fixed to computer screens. There was a bank of television monitors on the wall projecting news from around the world, which gave it kind of a newsroom feel.

The managing editor is Glen; he gave no last name. He pointed out a poster on the back wall made to look like a 1950s comic book, and in one corner it read, "There's no escaping the information highway."

Changing Responsibilities

Social media have forced the CIA into the fast lane. The Open Source Center's predecessor organization was basically a U.S. government translation service. Analysts translated foreign radio broadcasts or newspapers that sometimes took weeks to come in by ship.

Today, CIA analysts are still translating, but they're also responsible for figuring out what it all means. They're also under more pressure now to identify potential crises, sometimes with only a tweet or a status update to go on.

Doug Naquin, the director of the Open Source Center, says the volume of information the people are analyzing is massive.

He won't define "massive," but other intelligence officials say since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it's been like trying to drink from a fire hose. The political revolutions erupting around the Middle East have turned that fire hose into a flood.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill blamed the CIA for missing the Arab Spring, specifically the democratic uprising in Egypt. Naquin says his analysts knew something was brewing in the country.

"I want to clarify — we didn't predict, but we said it was going to be a game changer and did pose a threat to the regime," he says.

Naquin says that was in April 2009. His team wrote up reports on some kind of unrest, fueled by social media, but those reports were overlooked. That was in part, he says, because the CIA and the intelligence community as a whole weren't taking social media seriously.

"I remember there was a lot of resistance or skepticism, is the best word to say. 'Well it's just chatter, it's no value,' etc.," he says. "And we said ... 'No, there's something there.' "

'Narratives' Decoded

But figuring out what that something is — that's the hard part. Naquin says his office isn't trying to uncover secrets so much as they're trying to put together what he calls a country's "narrative."

"You know, what are the underlying beliefs? So in the United States, for example, one of our master narratives is the 'American Dream.' It's the same in other countries," he says.

Building those narratives for foreign countries means tracking almost anything.

For example, "What's trending? Is it the Justin Bieber concert?" Naquin says. Yes, the CIA uses Justin Bieber as a kind of social barometer.

"Well, it says to me that their attention is not terribly focused on other issues that we may consider more serious," he says. "I kind of raised it as a frivolous point, but if Justin is No. 1, and the water situation is four or five, it'll give you sense of the mindset of a certain part of the population."

More Than Just A Google Search

We were given access to a regular morning meeting where the CIA analysts talked about what they had been monitoring, though we were told in advance that the meeting would be sanitized. In other words: No sensitive stuff in front of the reporters.

These analysts take what they learn through open source material and put it into classified reports, used by the CIA and other government agencies. But it's hard to see how this is more specialized than what a graduate student could research and write as a senior thesis. Naquin has heard this critique before.

"It's very easy to say, 'Well, this is what I found in Google, and this is what they're saying, so this must be true,' and that's I think one of the biggest changes over the past five years," he says. "People realize this is much more than just doing a Google search."

Analysts are responsible for monitoring everything that comes out of a specific country, but they're also tracking political movements and terrorist groups. Beth — that's what the CIA wants us to call her — spends her day looking at terrorist-related websites and monitoring Twitter feeds and Facebook pages that raise red flags.

"In order for these really reclusive groups to communicate with their supporters, they have to do it in open forum, often times using the Internet," she says, "where, you know, they can reach supporters around the world, and the more open they have to be, the easier it is for people like us to find it."

Broader Impact

Social media can kind of "out" terrorist sympathizers. The challenge for the CIA is figuring out exactly who and where they are. That's complicated because the Internet makes it easy for users to hide themselves — to literally create digital identities using shadow IP addresses. Someone could be tweeting in Arabic under a Yemen email address, but it could be a U.S. citizen sitting in his house in Ohio. The problem with that is it's illegal for the CIA to monitor Americans on American soil.

"We can't tell where individual posts come from," Naquin says.

So if they're pursuing someone and, at some point in that analysis they realize that that person is sitting in the United States, how does that change what they're doing?

"I can't get into those types of questions in too much detail," he says, "but if there's any — let me put it broadly — if there's any situation in which we came across anything that involved U.S. persons, we would either stop or we would turn it over to one of our partners on the domestic side."

But the line between what kind of "monitoring" is legal and what's not could get more complicated as the technology evolves. Naquin says he's anticipating a future when our household appliances are all wired up to our iPhones and email accounts.

"The Internet is going from connecting people to connecting to things," he says. "People's thoughts that would never make it out of their homes now are available to everybody on the Internet."

For open source analysts with the CIA, that just means more information and hopefully more valuable intelligence. For those living in a country ruled by a government with a penchant for domestic spying, it's potentially a Big Brother nightmare

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Rick Falkvinge: the Swedish radical leading the fight over web freedoms

The tech entrepreneur launched the Pirate party to fight online censorship. Now, it is Europe's fastest growing political group


Rick Falkvinge, right, celebrates the election of Christian Engström, left, as an MEP in 2009 European parliament elections by hoisting a pirate flag over Stockholm.

Photograph by Magnus Jönsson/PA With his polished shoes, and formal three-piece pinstriped suit, Rick Falkvinge looks like the kind of man you might meet to discuss your tax affairs, or the finer points of your investment portfolio.

Not radical politics. Or illegal file-sharing. Or revolutionary e-currencies that may destroy the global banking system. Because, although sipping a soy latte in the Stockholm cafe that he calls his office, Falkvinge has the air of a successful corporate lawyer, he's actually the founder and chief ideologue of Europe's youngest, boldest, and fastest growing political movement: the Pirate party.

The Pirates are a political force that have come out of nowhere. Dreamed up by Falkvinge in 2006, they're an offshoot of the underground computer activist scene and champion digital transparency, freedom and access for all. In three years, they gained their first seat in the European parliament (they now have two) and became the largest party in Sweden for voters under 30. Since then they've gained political representation in Germany and swept large parts of Europe.

What they've done is to use technology in new ways to harness political power. Falkvinge describes how "we're online 24/7", how they operate in what he calls "the swarm" – nobody is in charge, and nobody can tell anybody else what to do – and how, essentially, they are the political embodiment of online activist culture.

The Pirates are geekdom gone mainstream and Falkvinge is the Julian Assange-style figurehead. A leading player in a fight for digital freedom that last week came to a dramatic head when the US Congress prepared to vote on the Stop Online Privacy Act (Sopa), and Wikipedia, supported by the likes of Google, led a 24-hour blackout of the internet.

The controversial legislation has, temporarily at least, been shelved, but Falkvinge is unequivocal about the gravity of the threat. The law would have given American courts the right to crack down on internet sites anywhere in the world and to monitor anybody's private communications. It is, he claims, nothing less than an attack on fundamental human rights.

"We're at an incredible crossroads right now. They're demanding the right to wiretap the entire population. It's unprecedented. This is a technology that can be used to give everybody a voice. But it can also be used to build a Big Brother society so dystopian that if someone had written a book about it in the 1950s, it would have been discarded as unrealistic."

The creeping attempts at legislation are down to the power of what he calls the "copyright monopoly", and although the US record industry and Hollywood studios view file-sharing sites as theft, and this week succeeded in having the founders of one site, Megaupload.com, charged with racketeering, Falkvinge is clear that it's no such thing.

"It's not theft. It's an infringement on a monopoly. If it was theft and it was property, we wouldn't need a copyright law, ordinary property laws would suffice." Nor does he have any truck with the argument that file-sharing hurts art and artists.

"It's just not true. Musicians earn 114% more since the advent of Napster. The average income per artist has risen 66%, with 28% more artists being able to make a living off their hobby. What is true is that there's an obsolete middle market of managers. And in a functioning market, they would just disappear."

But in any case, he says, it's not about the economy or creativity. "What it boils down to is a privileged elite who've had a monopoly on dictating the narrative. And suddenly they're losing it. We're at a point where this old corporate industry thinks that, in order to survive, it has to dismantle freedom of speech."

These are rights, he says, which the younger generation takes for granted and become incensed about when they are attacked.

"There's a complete disconnect between the way the younger generation understands technology and the way the older generation does. If you look at the record industry, particularly the British record industry, they don't call themselves the record industry but the 'music industry' or even just 'music'.

"So when the record industry is in a decline, they honestly think that music is in a decline, but it's not: 90% of music online isn't published through a label. There's more diversity than ever."

What isn't in any doubt is that the Pirates have appealed directly to young people. Falkvinge turned 40 yesterday and although he is of the first generation to have been brought up with computers – he got his first, a Commodore VIC-20 when he was eight – he's ancient for a Pirate party member.

"There are a few seniors, by which I mean people over 30, but the bulk is much, much younger. Honestly, if a member of a traditional party looked at our demographic, they wouldn't believe it. We are peaking at ages 18, 19."

And the issues which have made headlines this week, the attempts of lawmakers and the traditional, established industries to take on the new young upstarts of the digital age, are the ones which, he says, speak to the heart of this generation. "In the 1960s the buzzwords were peace and love. For this generation, it's openness and free speech. This generation has grown up being able to say anything to anybody. Letting ideas battle it out for themselves. And all of a sudden, corporations want to take that away. And 'offended' does not do their emotions justice."

Having taught himself how to code, Falkvinge set up his first software company aged 16, and calls himself "a first generation digital native". Although he's stepped down from day-to-day leadership of the Pirate party, and now operates as a self-styled "political evangelist", he certainly doesn't lack ambition. "Every 40 years, there's a new grassroots political movement," he says and traces a path between the rise of liberal parties in the 1890s, to the labour movement of the 1920s and 30s, the emergence of green politics in the 60s and the 70s, right up to the Pirate parties of today.

"Looking at the cycles of history, the time is right for a major new political wave. And the Pirate party is in 56 countries now. We had this smash success where we got into the European parliament in just three and a half years from founding. We became the largest party in that election for people under 30, just sweeping the floor with the most coveted demographic.

"The establishment didn't know what hit them."

In Germany last autumn, they gained major representation in the Berlin state parliament, and they're likely to achieve further success in Schleswig Holstein's elections in May.

"Where are we going?" Falkvinge asks rhetorically. "I think we are the next Greens."

That won't be seen as the hugest threat in Britain, I point out. But Britain is not Europe, and Falkvinge and the Pirates are ineffably European. There's more than a touch of Stieg Larsson to them. From the Scandi-cool roots, the computer hacking background of many of its members, and the underground nature of its support network, even up to its sexual politics. Falkvinge's Wikipedia entry describes him as "openly polyamorous".

What does that mean? "It means that I don't feel jealousy. I need to logically learn what it is. And I can be in love with several people at the same time and there's no conflict. And you know, in Sweden, this isn't a big issue."

Sexual libertarianism isn't an official Pirate policy, but "people in the Pirate party do tend to be more open to non-mainstream ideas. They are not as conformist as your average citizen."

The pinstripe suit is a bit of a cover, he admits. Look like a corporate lawyer. Act like a covert revolutionary. It's how to do politics, the pirate way.


Rick Falkvinge will be speaking at TEDxObserver on Saturday 10 March at Sadler's Wells in London. The event features a series of short talks on an eclectic range of issues, by campaigners, businesspeople, teachers, scientists, psychologists, and performers from around the world, including those here. They will share their insights into the complex challenges posed by a fast-changing world, with a special focus on the themes of youth and creativity.

As well as the main event in London, you can join the action at seven venues across Britain hosted by Observer writers where the event will be streamed live: Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Bristol and Brighton. Some tickets are still availabl

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