Alex Constantine - November 25, 2010
How the C.I.A. Perfects its Social Media Monitoring Technologies
Forbes | November 24 2010
It’s not a secret to most Netizens that they’re being watched on the Internet. And not just by advertisers. Law enforcement hasn’t exactly been secretive about the open source data-mining being done online.
Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Reddit, among others, are rich sources of intelligence, and fairly cheap ways to conduct surveillance. Instead of cars, listening devices and expensive cameras, you just need a computer and the ability to take a screen shot.
But some data-mining is richer than others. And the best software around is more likely to be developed in Silicon Valley than in the Pentagon. That’s part of the reason why the C.I.A. created a venture capital arm ten years back, called In-Q-Tel. It seeks out and provides funding to small start-ups developing technologies that could be of interest to the intelligence community…
What kind of technologies? I wrote a story for the main Forbes site here about some of the most interesting companies and technologies In-Q-Tel is investing in.
In-Q-Tel is a rather secretive group. It declined to speak to me for the story, but I did chat with the CEO of one of the companies the group has funded. Basis Technology CEO Carl Hoffman told me In-Q-Tel is a great investor for a small start-up because it’s a gateway to Washington for small companies that normally struggle to compete for federal contracts. An investment from In-Q-Tel led Hoffman’s company, which makes software that analyzes foreign-language texts, to expand to Middle Eastern languages, and it now does business with a variety of federal agencies, including the NSA.
Not-So Private Parts readers will likely be interested to know that In-Q-Tel likes companies coming up with better ways to mine social networking sites and geospatial location data. One of its investments, Geosemble, a private spin-off from USC, estimates that “80% of online content has location information.” “Our mission is to shine a torchlight on geographic unknowns and help organizations neutralize threats and capitalize on opportunities in their areas of geographic interest,” says its website. Another of IQT’s geospatial investments, FortiusOne, promises instant maps based on Tweets and photo uploads, for mapping election-day threats in Afghanistan, for example.
Sources say that IQT has an impressive investing track record; in 2005, when the Washington Post did a long story on the fund, it had a rate of return of 26%. In that year, In-Q-Tel sold $2.2 million worth of Google shares that it got when Google bought Keyhole, a satellite mapping software that became Google Earth. “When we mention to other Silicon Valley investment firms that In-Q-Tel is one of our investors, that earns us brownie points,” says Hoffman. He sent along the brochure at right, featuring his company, signed by former CIA director, George Tenet.
The only downside for these companies: being seen as CIA-affiliates can make expanding their businesses to China and the Middle East difficult.