In a move that's unlikely to sit well with privacy advocates, the FBI has begun scouting for a tool that will allow it to gather and mine data from social networks like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
The goal is to use the tool to keep on top of breaking events, incidents and emerging threats, the agency said in a recent Request for Information (RFI) from IT vendors.
The FBI said it's seeking a "secure, lightweight web application portal using mashup technology."
According to the RFI document, "The application must have the ability to rapidly assemble critical open source information and intelligence that will allow [the FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center] to quickly vet, identity and geo-locate" potential threats to the U.S.
The FBI said the tool must have the ability to automatically search and scrape data off social networking and news sites based on specific queries. It must also be able to display alerts on geo-spatial maps and give users the ability to quickly summarize the "who, what, when, where and why" of specific threats and incidents.
The FBI hopes to use information posted on social networks to detect specific and credible threats, locate those organizating and taking part in dangerous gatherings and predict upcoming events, the FBI said.
"Social media will be a valued source of information to the SIOC intelligence analyst in a crisis because it will be both eyewitness and first response to the crisis," the RFI said.
It noted that social media networks have been trumping police, firefighters and new media when it comes to communicating news of developing incidents and protests.
"Social media is rivaling 911 services in crisis response and reporting," the RFI said.
An FBI spokesman said the proposed system will be used only to monitor publicly available information, and won't be used to focus on specific individuals or groups, according to an Associated Press report.
The FBI was not immediately available to respond to questions from Computerworld.
Even so, the program should not be allowed to go ahead without proper oversight, said Ginger McCall director of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Open Government Project.
Last month. EPIC obtained several documents showing that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was engaged in social media monitoring activities similar to those planned by the FBI.
At that time, EPIC had warned that some of the monitoring activities appeared to have little to do with public safety. EPIC is concerned that the FBI's proposed plans may also go beyond public safety concerns, she said.
"They should not be monitoring dissent, or for reactions to major political proposals," she said, adding that such a system also shouldn't be used to measure public sentiment toward specific government agencies.
McCall called for "a full investigation" of the FBI's plans for social media monitoring. "You need to be sure that there is no overreaching and that the program operates [legally]," she said.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.