recommended reading

Social media plays a growing role in open source intelligence, experts say

Sarah Scully/

Analysts increasingly are turning to social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter to gather valuable information that can be used to help predict social, cultural and political shifts, and events before they might otherwise be apparent, intelligence community veterans Tuesday said at a panel discussion on open-source intelligence hosted by Government Executive.

“We take a large look at the world and see if there’s a surprise out there,” said Patrick O’Neil, analytic director of the Open Source Center for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “We’re trying to avoid a surprise.”

The intelligence community has long debated the value of open source intelligence, which is collected from public data, as opposed to covert or clandestine sources. While the panelists all were proponents of open source intelligence, they noted although social media offers significant new collection sources, its role should not be overstated.

“There are adopters of technology but that doesn’t mean they carry the voice of a nation or an entire populous,” said Craig Parisot, chief operating officer at Invertix, a technology company with more than a dozen patents in messaging, search and data mining innovations.

O’Neil said while only 20 percent of the world’s population uses social media, the huge volume of data makes processing information into actionable intelligence difficult. Despite those limitations, social media can provide valuable information for analysts, such as the identity of key influencers, he said.

“What we look at is impact,” he said.

He added while social media provides analysts with a wealth of new data, the problems of determining the veracity and meaning of that data are not all that different from those inherent in traditional intelligence collection methods.

“There are challenges, but they are challenges analysts are accustomed to dealing with,” O’Neil said. “It’s just [a matter of] translating traditional practices that we apply to all other information to social media.”

While traditional news media has sometimes blown the influence of social media out of proportion, its impact has been felt in major world events, especially in the Middle East. “Social media was not the cause of the Arab spring,” said David Abruzzino, director of the Open Source Intelligence Exchange at Fairmont State University, “but it was an enabler.”

Other areas in which social media has provided valuable intelligence include responding to natural disasters, monitoring potential irregularities in elections and evaluating security risks for elected officials.

“It doesn’t [necessarily] tell you what’s happening,” O’Neil said, “but it tells you where to look.”

As the intelligence community develops new technologies to process social media, analysts should keep in mind that people’s use of social media will continue to evolve.

“[We must] make sure we’re following the right trends in how people are using it,” Abruzzino said. “This is not going away, but how people use it is going to change the dynamic.”

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats


Close [ x ] More from Nextgov

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.