its sights on social
A Picture/Poem collection
"I AM continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily
post online about themselves." So says Jon Callas, chief security officer at PGP,
a Silicon Valley-based maker of encryption software. He is far from alone in noticing
that fast-growing social networking websites such as MySpace and Friendster are
a snoop's dream.
New Scientist has discovered that Pentagon's National Security Agency, which
specialises in eavesdropping and code-breaking, is funding research into the mass
harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks.
And it could harness advances in internet technology - specifically the forthcoming
"semantic web" championed by the web standards organisation W3C - to combine
data from social networking websites with details such as banking, retail and
property records, allowing the NSA to build extensive, all-embracing personal
profiles of individuals.
Right now this is difficult to do because today's web is stuffed with data in
incompatible formats. Enter the semantic web, which aims to iron out these
incompatibilities over the next few years via a common data structure called the
Resource Description Framework (RDF). W3C hopes that one day every
website will use RDF to give each type of data a unique, predefined, unambiguous
"RDF turns the web into a kind of universal spreadsheet that is readable by computers
as well as people," says David de Roure at the University of Southampton in the UK,
who is an adviser to W3C.
The NSA recently changed ARDA's name to the Disruptive Technology Office.
The DTO's interest in online social network analysis echoes the Pentagon's
controversial post 9/11 Total Information Awareness (TIA) initiative. That
programme, designed to collect, track and analyse online data trails, was
suspended after a public furore over privacy in 2002. But elements of the TIA
were incorporated into the Pentagon's classified programme in the September
2003 Defense Appropriations Act.