It's Evident


CIA Spies On YouTube, Facebook, Blogs and Chat Rooms
Dr. Susan Zucker, Director Technology & Distance Education

Talk about the Future of Forensics – here’s something pretty new … The CIA and FBI increasingly watch social and citizens media networks such as YouTube, Facebook, blogs and chat rooms which have become fertile classrooms for illicit activities. Intelligence is gathered from Social and Citizens Media on criminal and terrorist activity.1

Social Media is a term which describes social networks on the Internet and they are so new that they didn’t exist five years ago. The term includes Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and secure web-based e-mail. Citizens Media describes the phenomenon of people taking pictures with their cell phones and posting them on the Internet.

There has been a proliferation of tools, technologies, and methodologies developed to enable criminal activities on the internet. Internet crimes include fraud, identity theft, human trafficking, terrorist communications, attacks on government sites, dispensing viral code to destroy computer systems, and the list goes on …

Interestingly, the tools which make these criminal activities possible are also used as defensive measures to determine the goals, methodologies and/or intent of perpetrators and help law enforcement officials identify potential targets. This article informs and complements the theme, “Future of Forensics” in this issue of It’s Evident. Internet security is discussed in response to developing social networks and awareness is raised about the importance of Internet surveillance to curtail criminal and terrorist activity worldwide.

In the past, complex approaches used by sophisticated criminals were passed on through apprenticeships. Individuals put themselves in harm’s way to seek information and learn about these trades. Today, with the abundance of instruction on the internet, anyone can learn the fundamentals of sophisticated crimes with minimal risk and in near complete anonymity. All one needs is a computer terminal with an internet connection.2

Another unintended consequence of Internet platforms or social media, such as YouTube, is the ability to upload videos from cell phones3 which is a very popular pastime. The presence of these videos and audio clips not only to encourages criminal activity but conversely serves to enhance law enforcement capabilities by signaling illicit activity digitally. In fact, several investigations have been initiated based on “Internet sightings”, including the videos produced by Osama bin Laden. The same holds true for potential violations captured by people near crime scenes, who record ongoing activities with their cell phones and upload the video to YouTube.

YouTube videos influence political campaigns, bring fame or infamy to previously unknown talents and cast unwanted attention on the gaffes of the famous. YouTube and similar video sites have become repositories for videos that claim to detail police wrongdoings.4 In a manner of speaking, YouTube has become a tool for keeping law enforcement officers more honest.5

One sensational example involved a YouTube video which triggered the FBI to probe an arrest made in Los Angeles on August 11, 2008 in which police officers struck a suspect in the face several times before they were able to handcuff him. Subsequently, the Los Angeles Police Department also investigated the officers’ conduct.6 Such amateur clips cast light on police wrongdoing that might otherwise go unreported, stated Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.7 However, it is impossible to rely on such videos as they do not show the total context of a situation; they offer information bytes, not the whole story.

The content of internet social networking sites, by themselves, can be used as potential evidence of a crime or intent. Over the past few years, local law enforcement and US government agencies have been able to analyze the content of posted materials and determine attributing information which yields the identification and location of perpetrators. In most cases, Internet Service Providers, known as ISPs, reject the notion that they should do more to monitor what customers do online and decline to assist with monitoring which would help governments with surveillance.8

In keeping with its mandate to gather intelligence, the CIA is not only watching YouTube but it funds research for surveillance of Internet chat rooms as part of an effort to identify possible terrorists. U.S. spies, under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), look online for intelligence and have become major consumers of social media, such as New technologies are employed to search and analyze these data sources.10 Doug Naquin, director of the DNI Open Source Center, reports that YouTube and other social media “carry some unique and honest-to-goodness intelligence”.11

However, dealings between social networks and the government raise concern among citizens about their privacy online. Since December 2006, the CIA has been using Facebook to recruit potential employees into its National Clandestine Service (NCS) which marked the first time the CIA has ventured into social networking to hire new personnel.”12 Since digital media is the most popular type of communication media, new talent can be found on websites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. This means that government agencies will continue to turn to these social networks and other web-based means for recruitment.

Since the CIA has a page on Facebook, it would be surprising if they weren't using Facebook and other social media in other ways, reported Nicole Ozer, civil liberties and technology policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. The CIA reports that it is only using Facebook as an advertisement for new recruits. "The CIA Facebook page is only for information purposes; people cannot leave messages or engage in commentary," says Michele Neff, a CIA spokesperson.13 She states that no names are collected, no bio information or resume collection occurs from their Facebook site, nor does the CIA engage people in any way.14

Neff's claim is reinforced by Facebook's director of marketing Melanie Deitch, who refers to the agency as an "advertiser." "The CIA has no direct access to any user's profile," Deitch says.15 "They adhere to the same rules as all of our advertisers. We do not publish or disseminate our users' information to any advertiser."16

Ozer says that there's no way we can be sure what the CIA is up to online. Indeed, documents have revealed that the CIA funds federal research into surveillance of Internet chat rooms as part of an effort to identify possible terrorists.17 In April 2003, the CIA agreed to fund research projects that are intended to create "new capabilities to combat terrorism through advanced technology."18

One of those projects is research at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., devoted to automated monitoring and profiling of the behavior of chat-room users. Two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute computer science researchers are involved, Bulent Yener and Mukkai Krishnamoorthy. Their research involves writing a program for "silently listening" to an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel and "logging all the messages." The proposed system could aid the intelligence community to discover hidden communities and communication patterns in chat rooms without human intervention."19

A balance must be achieved between individual rights and discovery of information which is crucial to the security of the country. No small feat in a digital world.


1  Government Technology (May, 2008). CIA Taps Social Media, 21(5), 50.
2  Majidi, V. Oral Discussion, July, 2008.
3  Id.
4  Associated Press. (2006). YouTube video triggers FBI probe of L.A. arrest. Retrieved October 4, 2008 from website:
5  Veiga, A. Associated Press. (2006). video prompts probe of LAPD. Retrieved October 4, 2008 from website:
6  Id.
7  USA Today (2006).Police beating video from L.A. demonstrates the power of YouTube again. Retrieved October 3, 2008 from website:
8  Ward, M. BBC (2008). Net firms reject monitoring role. Retrieved October 5, 2008 from website:
9  McCullagh, D. CNET News (2004). Security officials to spy on chat rooms. Retrieved October 5, 2008 from website:
11 Id.
12 12 Bruce, C. Wired. (2007). CIA Gets in Your Face(book). Retrieved October 5, 2008 from website:
13 Id.
14 Id.
15 Id.
16 Id.
17 CIA behind Research to Spy on Chat Rooms. (2004). Retrieved October 5, 2008 from website:
18 McCullagh, D. CNET. (2004).
19 McCullagh, D. CNET. (2004). CIA funds chatroom surveillance. Retrieved October 5, 2008 from website:,1000000189,39175016,00.htm