April 6, 2012:
Social networking sites and Internet activity in general have turned into a major tool for intelligence agencies. There is an irony in this because sites like Facebook and Twitter are also hailed as catalysts for revolution and social change. While that's true, these sites have also been a big help to intelligence and police organizations. This can have fatal consequences in dictatorships, where the police and intel groups can use data gathering and analysis tools (developed for marketing via the Internet) to find people who are protesting or rebelling against the government. Even if these Facebook users are using codes and pseudonyms to remain hidden, the scanning and analysis tools can often uncover them. Twitter traffic can also be analyzed for useful information on who is doing what and where they are.
Social networking sites are thus a double edged sword. They can be used to organize, inform, and mobilize large groups. But in doing this you provide the secret police a lot of information you would rather not share with them. Islamic terror groups advise their members to avoid social networking sites, but that has proved hard to enforce. Social networking was designed to be alluring, as well as useful, especially to the young. For young revolutionaries, this can be a fatal attraction.
Intelligence agencies, especially in the United States, were quick to adopt commercial techniques used for BI (Business Intelligence, or corporate espionage) and data mining operations and applying it to the massive quantities of real time data on the Internet. The CIA developed software to gather all this Internet information, filter and organize it and then turn it over to analysts to be sorted out, or, in many cases, translated more accurately. That last bit was necessary because machine translation software can automatically translate all those tweets and postings so that stuff can be identified and put in a data base. But in order to get really useful (to the CIA) intelligence you need skilled linguists and analysts to double check and also find out if the selecting and sorting software needs to be tweaked (it often does).
This massive, real-time combing of social media and open (to anyone) message traffic has yielded a much more accurate and timely analysis of political, religious, cultural, and military trends worldwide. It has also made the deployment of agents and other scarce resources (reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping satellites, aircraft, and ships) more effective.
The FBI, Homeland Security, and military intelligence have similar data gathering and analysis systems for gathering all sorts of useful information. Other nations are establishing similar systems, often using commercial software sold to marketing firms and large corporations.