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Intelligence Agencies Are Using Your Social Media to Spy On You

I tried to replicate the software they're using to see how much it creeped me out.

af Sam Clements
20 februar 2013, 8:00am

Do you ever worry that the government doesn't know quite enough about what you do and where you do it? I know I do, which is why I was excited to hear about the great work being done by Raytheon. They're one of the planet's largest defence firms whose bread and butter is weapons of mass annihilation (like Tomahawk submarine-launched cruise missiles) that regularly rain death and destruction down upon foreign countries. And now they're looking at you.

You see the good men and women at Raytheon have been secretly developing a computer programme called "Riot". Sounds cool I know, but actually it stands for Rapid Information Overlay Technology, and it's basically a sophisticated piece of surveillance equipment. The Guardian described it as "Google for spies" and your government are reportedly very interested in it. 

Riot is a piece of software that has been developed with help from the US government. It collates social media "check-ins" to dot your movements over Google Maps, and collates your social networking activity to see both who you're friends with, and what you all like to spend your time doing. Add all that shit together and you basically have an algorithm for predicting your behaviour. It's basically like that episode of Black Mirror where a dead man's personality can be replicated from the traces of himself he left behind on social media, but y'know, less Charlie Brooker and more Joe McCarthy.

If this worries you, it's probs best not to think about the 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK.

Remember The Stasi

Duncan Mee is an old friend of VICE, a private eye who spends his days hunting down runaways for a private investigation firm called Cerberus. According to him, digital surveillance is the new secret police, and just as stop and search powers are used to criminalise particular groups, Riot surveillance will be used to target certain types of people.

“The Stasi [the East German secret police] had everybody in their pocket," Duncan tells me over the phone from his office in Covent Garden. "You knew that somebody, certainly in your extended family, was unwillingly in the pocket of a massive machine that was collecting data on everyone. And now that same level of data is there, just without the legwork.

“There will be a time where it becomes a bit like stop and search. You get stopped and searched if you fit the profile – if you happen to be black or you happen to be driving a clapped-out banger. It’s a target-rich environment for the police; they know they’re more likely to get a result if they make those approaches, and it must be tempting, armed with these types of tools, to start looking.”

According to Duncan, the police already watch football fans with advanced surveillance technology, even though the tech is only supposed to be used against suspected terrorists. So, just as the drones have moved from American foreign policy into the domestic sphere, techniques once reserved for the most serious of threats are now being utilised in the fight against bald men throwing coins at one another in pub carparks. 


Riot placing a target’s movements on Google Maps, ready for analysis.

You Can't Opt Out

On its own, Riot will only have extensively-detailed information on people who insist on narrating their lives through social media – here's looking at you, Sophie Heawood – but that won't always be the case. Frank Ahearn – an ex-private detective and the author of very spy-y sounding books like The Digital Hit Man and How to Disappear – believes Riot is just starting. In his opinion, it could potentially be linked to every other database currently containing information about us, creating an over-arching state surveillance system. Which will be fantastic news for totalitarians.  

“I take it you’re not familiar with the software TIA (Total Information Awareness) that the United States was working on several years ago?" Ahearn asks me over the phone. Surprisingly, I say, I'm not. "Well," he continues, "it basically takes information from every company out there that keeps databases on their customers. It was supposed to create this huge network of profiles on every single American."

TIA was officially canned in 2003 because everyone thought that being spied on really sucked, but many people believe that TIA was just renamed and that the project still unofficially exists. In fact, Riot’s social media analytics could be the final piece of the complete database of American citizens that the Bush administration dreamt of in-between invading countries and rounds of golf.

Ahearn seems to agree: "The question about this Riot software is: What else are they doing? Are they matching it with public records? Are they matching it with utility information? The problem I can see is if they can match your online presence to your offline presence.”

For all the protestations against invasion of privacy though, a quick glance through your Facebook friends should be enough to prove that few people seem to give a shit about their own online privacy. But, according to Frank, we all will once we realise we can't delete any of the private stuff we've posted, and that other countries have started buying up all our secrets. 

“When you hit enter on a computer, there’s a digital trace that never goes away. Point blank, that’s the bottom line. You may delete a Facebook account, but it doesn’t mean they delete it. They keep it in their database and, five years from now, their terms of service might change or they get bought by China and they’ll say, 'Screw this – we’re putting it all up now whether you deleted it or not.' That’s what people aren’t taking into consideration. It’s like a tattoo: you can’t always remove it.”


Riot search results yield images with embedded longitude and latitude data, pinpointed on Google Maps.

An Experiment in Riot 

Talking to these guys and reading about Riot, I began to wonder just how much I've shared on my own Facebook page. So, with an overinflated sense of my Excel abilities and some patchy Facebook analysis, I produced my own DIY Riot software to track and investigate myself – it's like 2.0 self-reflection, or something.   

It all starts on the Facebook information bar at the top of your profile page. Here you can access the Map feature, which shows each place you’ve checked-in at. 

If you check-in a lot, your map will be a lavish, all-you-can-eat banquet for stalkers. I don't check in that much, which is lucky not just because I'm giving less information to the company (and subsequently Riot/Raytheon), but also because I was collecting all this data manually and it would have taken me ages if I checked-in everywhere I go. Riot, of course, does all that automatically and instantly compares dates, time and the number of check-ins at certain places.

Using the semi-professional Excel skills I picked up in year nine IT class, I made a load of pie and bar charts – a bit like Riot does – by tallying up the places I’ve checked-in at most. The analysis? My life is a masochistic blend of alcohol abuse and exercise. If some sinister busybody wanted to track me down, presumably either to take me out for a drink or admire my massive pecs, the data suggests they should start looking at my local gym or pub. Which isn't exactly that revelatory.

However, it starts to get a little more menacing when you realise that the data can decipher which days you're most likely to be at a check-in spot. For example, despite the fact I have zero-to-little body muscle to show for it, Facebook tells me the one location I go to the most is the gym, and the days I'm there most often are Tuesday and Saturday. Not Monday, though. You can't go to the gym on a Monday; it makes you want to kill yourself.

By manually taking the timestamp from each Facebook check-in (something Riot can do automatically, of course), I also compiled a graph of the most frequent hours I go to the gym. Typically I happen to be there any time between 7PM and 9PM. So, if you ever wanted to locate me on CCTV or in person to track my movements for the rest of the day, or to steal something I have in my possession, your best bet would be to start at the gym on a Tuesday evening. Which actually scares me less than it worries me about how lame and predictable my life is. Of course, if I were an important political figure and not a hipster gym freak, this information would be more valuable.

Bear in mind that this study was performed using the most rudimentary technology known to man: man. Riot has the capability to collate that information instantly and seamlessly link it to any other online information that it can gather. I don't think I'm currently planning on committing any major crimes, or am of specific interest to any one person who might want to track me down, but the thought that someone could if they wanted to (and the simple fact that the information is there at all) kind of creeps me out. Clearly, I'm not going to geo-tag myself any more; that should sort it out. Oh wait, what's that? Other people can tag you? Shiiiiiiiit.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements

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