Analysts at the CIA's Open Source Center spend their days combing through the world's tweets, blogs and facebook pages in an attempt to determine the mood of people across the globe. They say this type of "sentiment analysis" helps them predict events like the Egyptian revolution. Brooke speaks with Associated Press intelligence reporter Kimberly Dozier.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Somewhere in Virginia, in an undisclosed location, a group of CIA analysts spend their days combing through the world's tweets, blogs and Facebook pages in an attempt to determine the mood of people around the global. Doing this type of “sentiment analysis” allows the people at the CIA's Open Source Center to predict such events as the Egyptian revolution.
Kimberly Dozier covers intelligence and counterterrorism for the Associated Press. She was given exclusive access to the CIA's Open Source Center. Kimberly, welcome to On the Media.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: Great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So did they blindfold you and drive you to the secret headquarters?
KIMBERLY DOZIER: No [LAUGHS], they - they gave me the address.
And I, I drove to the front gate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So the analysts at the Open Source Center wade through tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: This is the successor to the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, something that existed at the CIA before 9/11 that looked at the traditional stuff, like newspapers and radio channels, broadcasts overseas. And then after 9/11, the 9/11 Commission asked that an open source center be set up.
Now, looking at social media, that's something that was driven by events. They said in 2009 their analysts were watching what was happening with the Iranian revolution, when people took to the Internet and said, we don't like this election.
And that's when they started hiring people and also just retasking some of their analysts to start tracking this stuff. I got to say, because they kept stressing it to me, we are not watching Americans. That's not our remit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even though they are not actively watching Americans –
KIMBERLY DOZIER: Mm –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - they're bound to bump into them as they go through Facebook and Twitter. I assume once you're on the radar, you stay there.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: When they come across Americans’ broadcasts or messages overseas, they have to ignore them, if they can identify them as being from a U.S. citizen who is not engaged in some sort of espionage or terrorism or something that they're supposed to be watching for
However, okay, if you are mining five million tweets a day, I don't know, if you're looking at that much information, that there’s any possible way to X it out. But the comeback that they gave me was also, look, this is not something covert. We’re just watching what people think –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: - and reporting back, so the policymakers can make smart decisions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The director of the Open Source Center said that these analysts are called ninja librarians.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: What makes a ninja librarian, the director said, is someone with a master's in Library Science.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A very scary field.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: I have received emails from librarians across the country who say, finally someone understands what we can do. Who knew it was gonna be the CIA?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also, it helps to have multiple languages.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: Especially if you grew up speaking one of them at home – Arabic, Russian, one of those really hard languages to understand the idioms and the jargon in. That helps the analysts communicate, all right, what are the other layers of meaning here?
They have really had to push over the past few years to push these analysts out to the field, let them spend a year or two in a region that they’ve spent their whole lives studying, so that they know the feel of the place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are the limitations of this type of sentiment tracking? I, I know they look at television, which most people can see. But it focuses on the Internet, and that limits the sample, right, especially overseas?
KIMBERLY DOZIER: And they’re very upfront about that. They say that tracking stuff on the Internet means we're probably getting the top slice of the socioeconomic part of any country, the people who can afford to have a computer in their homes or can afford to go to an Internet cafe.
But he said, you'd be surprised at the number of people who are accessing the Internet through SMS text messages. He said that’s really increasing their ability to monitor the mood, for instance, across Africa, because almost everybody has a cell phone.
One of the problems that the Open Source Center foresees is that increasingly people are relying on closed SMS networks. The Taliban, for instance, uses a closed subscriber network in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. So you're gonna have to have the NSA penetrate that and then get it back to the analysts at the Agency, probably not the ones at the Open Source Center.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What we’re talking about here is basically a way to track the chatter in the cyber world. And, you know, this is something we've all been hearing about chatter for a long time, chatter about a possible terrorist attack. Is this where it's been coming from all this time?
KIMBERLY DOZIER: They have been doing this for a long time. And a lot of folks even on Capitol Hill who [LAUGHS] are supposed to know about the stuff didn't realized that this was going on to this extent. After the Arab Spring the intelligence community took a hit for allegedly not having been watching this at all. And the fact of the matter is they were.
They say, we can tell you the mood on the street, but we can't predict the moment that a street seller would set himself on fire in Tunisia, setting off a revolution across the Middle East.
But they'll also tell you that they have been asking themselves, are we too focused on terrorism? Did we not look at strategic intelligence, what way a country is going to go?
And then when Director David Petraeus took over at the CIA, he thought that something like the Open Source Center was something he'd have to fix. He was relieved to find they were already doing it. The fact that he's opened its doors kind of shows you he's all for raising their profile.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, General, now CIA –
KIMBERLY DOZIER: Now, the Director.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - Director David Petraeus is an extremely media savvy guy.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: One of the things Petraeus wants to do is tell more of the agency story, especially with budget cuts coming. Last time there were major budget cuts in intelligence in the 1990s, the Open Source Center lost hundreds of people. And, you know, General/Director Petraeus knows the value of a good story on Capitol Hill when people have the budget scythe in their hands.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kimberly, thank you very much.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: Great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kimberly Dozier covers intelligence and counterterrorism for the Associated Press. Her book, Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Survive and Get Back to the Fight is now out in paperback. Profits from the book go to wounded warrior charities.