The Canadian government has spent the last two years developing advanced software that can trawl social media and the internet for threats in real-time, according to a new research paper.
The research, finalized last year and published recently, details software designed to track and analyze public posts for public safety risks, including social disturbances.
The software, which was funded by the Canadian government, can collect and store tweets and other social media posts, translate them from their original language, archive them for searching, interpret the “emotion” behind the post, and pull information that could be used to identify the person behind the post — even if they are anonymous.
The software gives investigators the ability to search through millions of social media and blog posts for “source language, document genre, posting location, posting date, keywords, linguistic entities, author sentiment and emotions.”
The prototype of the software was built by a partnership with the National Research Council, the main science and technology research body of the Canadian government; Thales Group, a French multinational that ranks amongst the largest defense contractors in the world; MediaMiser, an Ottawa-based social media monitoring firm that has subsequently been acquired by a New York firm; and an unnamed intelligence agency.
It’s unclear exactly what use this software will be put to, or whether the unnamed intelligence agency that partnered with the companies on developing the prototype will deploy it, but the research paper does say that “our industrial partners each have their own plans to make good use of the results of our project for improving or augmenting their respective commercial offerings.”
This sort of technology has been touted as the next frontier for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to track, respond to, and even predict crime, social unrest, and terrorism. Thales boasts it will help intelligence and security specialists “to anticipate and prevent potential threats to public safety and security.”
But skepticism remains about how effective this software truly is and whether or not software can accurately gauge human emotion — yet.
The National Research Council, however, boasts that their social media monitoring technologies are top-tier, but that “their potential in security analysis remains to be firmly established.”
The report offers a few hypotheticals as to how the technology could be used — for example, it may compile and translate “blogs or tweets in Arabic or Chinese that indicate developing threats to Canadian embassies” or similar data in Canada “that suggests a social disturbance may be developing” like the June 2011 Vancouver hockey riot.
A researcher with the project explained, in a 2015 interview with Vanguard Magazine, that with the software, an investigator could say: “Give me all the text that mentions the Pan Am Games with negative emotions.” That, they claim, could be used to identify possible security threats.
The project was also tested in real-life examples. The prototype was used to assess English-language reactions to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, survey English and Arabic tweets and blogs pertaining to the Syrian civil war, and to watch social media response to the terrorist attack on the Parliament buildings in Ottawa in 2014.
Previous investigations have revealed that Canadian intelligence agencies have already employed social media monitoring to sniff out Indigenous and environmental protesters.
The project goes further than just aggregating public sentiment or reaction to an event. The technology is intended to be able to pinpoint or identify social media users. Beyond just grabbing the user name and stated location of a social media account, the technology also compiles— where available — the geolocation of the tweet or post, as well as a list of who the account follows, who follows it, and what tweets the account has favorited.
Thales bills this surveillance as “real-time,” saying that the data is “immediately analysed in detail using big data algorithms and techniques … to detect changes, trends or anomalies, identify potentially dangerous entities, feed into specific lines of investigation and provide updates on developments.”