DARPA Dissecting The Internet Hive Mind

1280px-DARPA_LogoYesterday, DARPA announced the existence of something called the Social Media in Strategic Communication program (SMISC). SMISC’s reported aim is to analyze the instantaneous information sharing behavior that takes place on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Coming from the same agency that funded this nightmare, SMISC seems an unusual approach to the future of defense technology; however, there’s a lot more to it than would be suggested by DARPA’s casual tweet.

From DARPA.mil:

…the conditions under which the nation’s military forces conduct operations are changing nearly as fast as the speed of thought. DARPA has an interest in addressing this new dynamic and understanding how social network communication affects events on the ground as part of its mission of preventing strategic surprise.

…Through the program, DARPA seeks to develop tools to help identify misinformation or deception campaigns and counter them with truthful information, reducing adversaries’ ability to manipulate events.

Sounds noble and well-reasoned enough – social media has very literally become the external thought bank of The World. Dipping into that bank should no doubt be an enlightening scientific endeavor. In fact, this is essentially the strategy used by every single company that sells things on the web: figure out what people are talking about, and become part of the conversation. That the US government wants to do this as well is not at all surprising; however, a glimpse into what DARPA has already funded in this brave new realm is somewhat alarming (and amusing).

From The Guardian:

  • On the Study of Social Interactions on Twitter – Collected and analyzed 2,400 tweets from users who identified themselves as residing in the Middle East.
  • Modeling User Attitude toward Controversial Topics in Online Social Media – Analyzed users’ opinions on oil fracking.
  • The Role of Social Media in the Discussion of Controversial Topics – Studied the behavior of users tweeting about a 2012 California vote on taxes, genetic engineering, and the death penalty.
  • Analysis of tweets and re-tweets by ‘influencers’ like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga…

Despite the fact that everything DARPA has analyzed and plans to analyze comes from publicly accessible social media feeds, many are quite concerned about whether these actions impinge on personal privacy (words like mind control and propaganda come into play). Nevertheless, DARPA shows no indication of reining in SMISC. For better or worse, social media is the new battle ground – this is a reality Internet Security has known for some time. Fortunately, it is still a reality that is easy enough to avoid. Have a great (social-media-free?) day!

For full coverage, see US military studied how to influence Twitter users in Darpa-funded research from The Guardian.