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NSA spying on social-networking spaces

In the midst of the political conflagration generated by revealed wiretapping of domestic phone calls, it recently came to light that the NSA has been funding research to raise data-mining efforts to include social-networking Web sites.

These websites, which include household names such as and, represent a large data source for agencies like the NSA to tap into. With more than 80 million accounts located on alone, the sites offer a wide variety of publicly available information such as contacts and shared activities.

This kind of information, if correctly collected and filtered, can be combined with other gathered data to reveal information as to a person's banking, retail and property records and eventually help fill in the picture of a potential terror suspect's activities. And such an aid could prove to be extremely helpful to the intelligence community in its pursuit for both terror suspects and criminals. In the past, intelligence administrators have complained that harvested phone logs, while appropriate to their searches, provided only a limited scope to a person's social network. Data that is collected from these sites may help to provide a more complete picture of the person in question.

Established in 1952, the NSA's primary duty has been the collection and analysis of foreign communications. Though not officially tasked for domestic surveillance and generally leaving this function to organizations such as the FBI, which is specifically chartered for this, the NSA has garnered domestic phone calls since the attacks on September 11, 2001.

"There are 80 million individuals who've put their life up for everyone to see," said an analyst for Creative Strategies, a technology analysis firm. The analyst further then pointed out that the question as to the NSA's actions arose in how the information was collected beyond what was publicly displayed for anyone to read.

"If you get access behind the firewall, you're trying to trigger identities and figure out where the content is originating from," he said. "Then it comes down to discretion."

It should be mentioned that the NSA searches are also tying into a time when the Internet is evolving towards what's known as the "semantic Web." With uncomplicated code revisions to major Web sites, the Internet's content becomes easier to search through and index, larger systems and search engines seeing the structure of the Internet in a more logical, easily searchable way. While the "semantic Web" may help surveillance, it also assists in making searches more accurate.

Others are wondering about the logic in NSA's tracking of terrorist connections through social-networking sites such as and

The reason for this question is that terrorist organizations generally rely on telephone-based communications and despite the accessibility of MySpace, there may be more value in data harvested from a telephone call.

One expert in the industry said that, in his experience, there are different incentives for using sites like these. You try to link to as many people as possible. It's hard to make 100 calls a day and it's a tangible cost. He added that there is a more tangible/invested connection in the phone call than just through the link on MySpace.

Professor Singh of the Computer Science Department at Georgetown University said that "Right now it's unclear as to how much of this data is public and how much is private and this is where concerns arise. We shouldn't be concerned that the data is being used, we should be concerned about where the data is from."

Professor Singh further added that "There's a natural tradeoff that occurs between privacy and data mining and analysis. Data mining isn't a bad thing, as it helps us understand trends. Still, it can be misused if there's a lot of private information that gets exposed. They shouldn't go behind the firewall. If there's a firewall, then there's the notion that what's beyond the firewall is essentially not public. We can't stop the government from accessing it, but people should be concerned about how much they want potentially millions of eyes to see."