Can law enforcement detect radicalization before an individual turns violent? It’s complex, but certainly possible for savvy law enforcement and intelligence officials to detect signals early on with the assistance of actionable social media data.
As Mitch Silber, former intelligence chief for the New York City Police Department, pointed out in his July TIME article, How to Stop the Next Domestic Terrorist, social media monitoring can be the most useful action law enforcement takes to increase the chances of finding the needle in the haystack.
That said, pointed, purposeful and nimble use of social media technology by well-trained professionals can be—and indeed has been—a critical tool in mitigating the radicalization process and the potential for violence.
The FBI defines Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) as “a broad array of information and sources that are generally available, including information obtained from the media (newspapers, radio, television, etc.), professional and academic records (papers, conferences, professional associations, etc.), and public data (government reports, demographics, hearings, speeches, etc.).”
OSINT has played an increasingly critical role in intelligence gathering since the CIA opened its National Open Source Center in 2005. At the time, the focus was largely on traditional, publically available sources such as newspaper articles, speeches, radio and television. More recently, the focus has shifted to Internet-based open sources, particularly social media.
In September 2015, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen announced the new Directorate of Digital Innovation (DDI).
“[It] will be at the center of the agency’s effort to inject digital solutions into every aspect of our work. It will be responsible for accelerating the integration of our digital and cyber capabilities across all our mission areas—human intelligence collection, all-source analysis, open source intelligence and covert action,” Cohen said.
The acknowledgement that digital capabilities such as social media are vital to successfully carrying out those missions is enormous validation marking another step towards bringing the intelligence picture into focus.
We all leave digital footprints, but nowhere are these footprints more prominent than in social media. As Cohen noted in his remarks, the DDI will manage the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise, a unit that is “dedicated to collecting, analyzing and disseminating publicly available information of intelligence value” as more information is “openly available on foreign web sites and in social media.”
The abundant information that is willfully shared via social media provides extremely valuable insight. and a prominent OSINT data source. Furthermore, the public, as well as open posts by our adversaries and nefarious characters, are rich sources of insight into their true beliefs and, all too often, malicious intentions.
It is difficult to quantify OSINT’s role in the intelligence gathering process, or that of social media in the OSINT intelligence gatheringphase. However, we know entities such as college campuses, local law enforcement agencies and the United States Air Force are using social media monitoring for intelligence collection, storage and analysis. These efforts have aided in prevention of a range of incidents, including self-harm and on-campus violence, shutting down teen drug parties and locating Islamic State militants.
Combining social media intelligence with covert intelligence paints a much clearer picture of the world than either open source or clandestinely acquired information could on their own. In addition to being a source of intelligence in and of itself, OSINT offers supplemental data to classified information to help corroborate or disprove theories. The most actionable social media data is that which is geo-located. Social media posts, tweets, comments and pictures that are tagged with GPS coordinates are highly actionable for several reasons: 1) they give context to dates and times in addition to exact locations; 2) they provide precise situational awareness; and 3) they provide the exact whereabouts of posters – which can be as specific as which corner of a house a person may be hiding in.
Actionable intelligence gained from social media data plays a crucial role in connecting the dots needed to create a clear and accurate intelligence picture.
Law enforcement and intelligence officials must strive to stay ahead of the social media curve as they work to safeguard our communities and interests. Analysts should constantly pursue legal, safe and proactive methods of leveraging the data trove that is social media.
Through the use of thoughtful, holistic analysis that includes OSINT social media, authorities are empowered to potentially prevent attacks and threats against their communities.
Zeke Fraint is director, government programs at Geofeedia. Prior to joining Geofeedia, Fraint worked as an intelligence analyst at Cook County Sheriff’s Office Intelligence Center (SOIC), and brings valuable experience to the team with his background in criminal intelligence, law enforcement, homeland and national security. Fraint has a Bachelors of Arts in Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, with a major in Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at IDC Herzliya, and Masters in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.