CIA is investing in firms that specialize in sifting through social media posts

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The Central Intelligence Agency’s venture capital arm is investing in companies that develop artificial intelligence to sift through enormous numbers of social media postings and decipher patterns, according to a report.

A document obtained by The Intercept indicates that In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm, has made unpublicized investments in 38 companies, many of which are startups specializing in analyzing and extracting useful patterns from large amounts of data from social media. 

Social media offers a trove of valuable information for intelligence agencies, but separating the signal from the noise is a monumental task.

“ISIL’s tweets and other social media messages publicizing their activities often produce information that, especially in the aggregate, provides real intelligence value,” CIA second-in-command David Cohen said in a speech at Cornell University in September.

Dataminr, PATHAR and Geofeedia and are among the startups listed in the report, and the products that all three of the companies provide are tools that help peer through an otherwise unwieldy volume of data.

Dataminr’s specialty is picking out trends on Twitter by using a stream of data it gets from the social media platform’s API, or application program interface. News organizations, law enforcement agencies and hedge funds are examples of clients who use the service to stay in the loop about relevant events in real time.

PATHAR’s flagship service, Dunami, is used to by clients, including the FBI, to map out networks of relations between people on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to find centers of influence.

Geofeedia automatically monitors geotagged social media posts for the purpose of monitoring breaking news events, and even markets its services to help law enforcement predict violent protests.

“During the Baltimore riots, or Ferguson, you could see a drop [in sentiment],” Lee Guthman, head of business development at Geofeedia, told Inverse, adding that a drop in sentiment on social media could reliably predict the violent riots those events.

All of these firms already have deals with the federal government, and the contracts are publicly viewable, thanks to transparency laws. Dataminr’s $254,990 contract was awarded by the Department of Homeland Security, Geofeedia has earned $126,800 from the Department of Justice, and PATHAR has deals totaling $410,118 from both of those agencies.