America's top spy agency has started investing in a software firm that develops programmes to monitor social media.
In-Q-Tel, the rather coyly named investment department of the CIA, has begun investing in Visible Technologies, a US software company that produces social media monitoring programmes.
According to Wired, Visible Technologies screen over half a million social media sites a day, trawling over a million posts and conversations from blogs, open social networks such as Twitter and Flickr, as well as online forums, and even Amazon user reviews.
Subscribers to Visible's service are offered a streamlined feed of what is being said online about them online. Visible's technology does not extend to "closed" social networks like Facebook.
The CIA has described this move as an extension of part of an existing program it calls "open source intelligence" — monitoring information that is already publicly available, which essentially means anything that is published or broadcast.
"Anything that is out in the open is fair game for collection," Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst for the Federation of American Scientists told Wired, although he considers the harvesting of such data by the CIA as "problematic".
"Intelligence agencies or employees might be tempted to use the tools at their disposal to compile information on political figures, critics, journalists or others, and to exploit such information for political advantage. That is not permissible even if all of the information in question is technically ‘open source."