Government Use of Social Data


“I know there was just a state-wide internet outage here; for the record, I had nothing to do with that.”

That was the opening line from Andrew Hallman, Deputy Director of CIA for Digital Innovation.  That level of self-awareness and an understanding of the biases typically held against the Intelligence Community would prove to be not just a central theme of this session, but also an effective way to challenge those listening to keep their minds open.

Hallman described his particular role as one whose inception was a natural extension of an agency-wide modernization in 2015. Much like brands and other organizations, CIA realized that it was not optimized to deal with the growing complexity of the global threat landscape. Hallman’s job was to come in and unify efforts and help digitally remaster the business of intelligence as the Intelligence Community had always known it.  An organization whose primary focus for many decades had been on nation states had to improve its effectiveness in addressing the growing diffusion of global power and increasingly complex threats that could emanate from anywhere.

The diffusion and fragmentation of the information environment has also meant a challenge to the standard methods of intelligence collection, albeit with new and more transparent ways to monitor untoward activity. “There is an increasing abundance of propagation of extremist messaging we need to be mindful of,” says Hallman. “It’s one thing to know of a known terrorist in a media space–it’s another thing to be monitoring those would-be or not-yet-known terrorists and watch the evolution of radicalization and advancement of plotting as it happens.” Hallman speaks of taking the lessons from 70 years of social science research about how societal and political instability forms and, leveraging the growing sensory environment, monitor the emerging conditions of change to anticipate crises that could impact national security, and provide policy makers more time and space to formulate options for shaping more favorable outcomes.

Hallman did a lot of mythbusting as well. “There have been volumes written and plenty of cinematography about the CIA that is inaccurate,” he says. He clarifies that the CIA’s mission is not to monitor everyday social media activity for the sake of it, but to look for patterns that reveal emerging threats, including to the safety of innocent life. “If you’re not a bad guy, don’t worry about it. If you are a bad guy, well, then worry about it.” He stresses that good collection of data is fairly similar to how brands should most effectively collect data: the CIA does not assign any value judgment to individual behaviors in social data unless they reveal a move toward radicalization or violent behavior, such as jihadist messaging or plotting attacks.

Twitter has also been effective for the Intelligence Community in terms of providing real-time information from around the world. No one person or agency can have eyes and ears in all places at all times; Twitter users around the world help the Intelligence Community by tweeting out real-time news happening, some of which is happening prior to, during and after violent events. When users share what’s happening, the CIA is better able to understand what is happening on the ground when they don’t have someone there.

Hallman makes an ask of the Big Boulder community: keep an open mind. There are plenty of misconceptions about the Intelligence Community, but he stresses that they–like the social media community–have a commitment to defending democratic ideals, free speech, respect for human dignity and safety of innocent lives. He notes that there are striking similarities between how the Intelligence Community collects and analyzes data and how brands and organizations do the same. The information may be different, the methods of collection may differ, but ultimately the CIA is trying to do what we all try to do with our collected social data: determine what story it tells and how then we should move forward.

Additional Takeaways:

While the CIA focuses on foreign adversaries and collection of human intelligence, the NSA is focused on collections of signal intelligence and communication intercepts, while the FBI is focused domestically on intelligence collection and law enforcement.

The CIA is seeking to integrate data at the data layer and find meaning in it to provide data driven insights to policy makers and war fighters.

“Our identities are what the data says we are.” – Hallman

Hallman does not believe we will get to a point where we can precisely predict future behaviors, but does believe they are getting better at forecasting what those conditions look like before they get to that point.

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