How to run your own NSA spy program

The U.S. government takes a big data approach to intelligence gathering. And so can you!

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The idea is to set up a special-purpose Twitter feed for information harvesting, then use it to follow vastly more content sources than any human could possibly keep up with.

Then, read that feed using Flipboard, Prismatic or some other site that filters content for you and that supports Twitter. (Note that these services also support Facebook and Google Reader, but Google will discontinue Reader soon. Twitter is probably your best bet.)

One thing these filters do well is eliminate content duplicates. Instead of getting 500 stories about the name of Kanye and Kim's baby, you'll get just one story -- probably the best or most popular one -- and get it over with.

Another way to think about the power of algorithmic de-duping is that normally you might not follow a news source from which only one story in 100 is unique or exclusive. But because duplicate stories are filtered out, you get only the one unique story from that source and not the 99 also-ran stories.

This elimination of duplicates frees you to follow news and content sources promiscuously, casting an ultra-wide net without fear of overloading yourself with redundant content.

3. Don't forget the new photograph recognition tech

One of the amazing spy tools at the disposal of the NSA is the ability to process photographs for face, object and location information.

These tools are at your disposal, too.

Facebook's new Graph Search feature lets you quickly experiment with finding photos by trying different queries. For example, if you search for "Pictures taken by people who work at ..." followed by a company, you'll get what you asked for. (This is one way to spy on a competitor, for example.)

Google's picture searching takes it even further, enabling you to search not only for tags, keywords, associated text and location, but also content categorization. Google can actually recognize objects, landmarks and other stuff, even if the person who posted it added no such context.

For example, if you search Google+ for something like Sydney Opera House, you'll get a massive trove of pictures of the building, many of which are not accompanied by any mention of the words Sydney, Opera or House. Google actually recognizes the building using machine intelligence.

The same goes for categories of things. You can search for the word "car," which is not a specific thing but a type or category of thing. Google still gives you cars, whether they're tagged or not.

There's one ironic caveat to using the NSA's methods for wide-scale information harvesting and algorithmic filtering, which is that the NSA may theoretically know everything you're doing.

The NSA's domestic surveillance programs are controversial and possibly unconstitutional. But let's face it: They work.

And the NSA's methods can work for you, too.

This article, How to run your own NSA spy program, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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