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Should spies spend more time on Twitter?

Should spies spend more time on Twitter?

After Egypt, authorities look closer at social media; Closer monitoring could detect dissent, track protest; China in particular using sites to shape political debate.

February 8, 2011 3:57 by

With unrest and chaos apparently having taken Egypt’s rulers and Western states by surprise, governments and spies are increasingly looking to social media like Twitter to detect political threats in advance.

Protesters who overthrew Tunisian President Ben Ali and brought revolution to the streets of Egypt used sites such as Twitter and Facebook to coordinate action. While few credit social media with causing the uprisings, the speed of instant communication it allows is believed to have accelerated events. The same was true for British student protests late last year and a broader, rising tide of anti-austerity actions. With so much more human interaction taking place online, and Tunisia and Egypt proving online dissent can swiftly yield real world consequences, governing authorities are interested.

“In any highly fluid situation, open source information derived from social media can provide very useful insights into where things might be headed,” one U.S. official familiar with intelligence matters told Reuters.

Intelligence agencies have long focused attention on extremist websites to detect crime and militancy.

But the idea of having state spies, police and other authority figures watching mainstream Twitter and Facebook feeds closely for signs of dissent might make some people rather uneasy — particularly in countries with a record of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses.

“It is very transparent — you can see who people are and who they are talking to,” said Tim Hardy, a British software engineer who runs the blog “Beyond Clicktivism”. “In some countries… people are effectively risking their lives — although you might perhaps worry whether they realise that.”

In Sudan, scene of some recent protests organised on Facebook, activists complain that police used the site to draw up lists of people to arrest.

But some argue that monitoring open websites is less intrusive than wiretaps, infiltration or interrogation.


Monitoring can also give security forces a faster real-time overview of protests. Had British police protecting Prince Charles and his wife Camilla in December been monitoring the storm of Twitter messages about protests in Oxford Street, the royal couple might not have become briefly trapped in their car.

But experts say the real advantage of monitoring social media sites is that it can give those in authority the chance to detect public anger early and engage in the debate, hopefully heading off discontent before it reaches the streets.

Western politicians — and increasingly those in the developing world — have begun using social media in an attempt to reach out to a young, tech-savvy audience. Those in the developing world may swiftly follow suit.

In Egypt — as in Iran during protests in 2009 — President Hosni Mubarak’s government tried to stifle the protests by shutting off the Internet. It didn’t work — indeed, some suspect this move brought more people onto the streets.

“It makes sense for governments to be able to make their case via social media, making arguments available in easily shareable format and be able to respond to issues… ideally before it gets to any kind of crisis point,” said Mark Hanson, a former social media strategist for Britain’s Labour Party.

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