Is privacy dead? (Image: Ramesh Amruth/PlainPicture)
SATIRICAL newspaper The Onion recently described Facebook as a project of the Central Intelligence Agency. "After years of secretly monitoring the public, we were astounded," a fictional agency deputy director told Congress. He was happy that Facebook users voluntarily post "alphabetized lists of all their friends" and "even status updates about what they were doing moment to moment". It is, he concluded, "truly a dream come true for the CIA".
The scenario is not that far from the truth. Facebook has close to a billion users, many of whom post daily updates on their thoughts and feelings. The same thing happens on Twitter. Foursquare users share information about their location. Commentators on news sites express opinions and outrage. And, as a New Scientist review of procurement requests shows, the US government is keen to take advantage of what amounts to a society of self-surveillance.
In a way, they are behind the curve - marketing firms already monitor social networks to gauge public reaction to product launches. And online chatter can be analysed to forecast election results, for example. US federal agencies want to harness these techniques in an attempt to gauge overseas opinion about America, or even get hints on how to head off terrorist activity.
With these aims in mind, officials at the Department of State issued a procurement notice on 1 June asking software developers to submit bids for a contract to supply tools that provide "deep analysis of topics, conversations, networks, and influencers of the global social web". These tools will analyse conversations taking place in at least seven foreign languages, including Chinese and Arabic.
Once the bids are in, the software systems will undergo a six-month trial in which they will examine online reaction to a specific event, such as a talk given by a US ambassador.
The military is even further along with such plans. In 2007, the US air force awarded defence giant Lockheed Martin a $27 million contract to develop theWeb Information Spread Data Operations Module, or WISDOM, which analyses posts made to news forums, blogs and social media. Military analysts are already using it to monitor Central and South America and the Pacific region. Lockheed Martin is now upgrading WISDOM with a $9 million contract from the navy, which wants to "understand the latest regional trends and sentiment and predict threats from groups and individuals".
Other departments have similar plans - the FBI is talking to software vendors, and the Department of Homeland Security already has a monitoring system up and running.
How might such monitoring affect our online behaviour?
Imagine reading an article about US government policies and then wanting to post an angry comment. Would you pause if you knew the government would collect and store your comment and username? "This prevents people from speaking their minds," says Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington DC. "It quells dissent." One would hope government officials had such concerns in mind. It is difficult to say, however, because repeated attempts by New Scientist to obtain comments from the Department of State were met with silence.