When classes at the University of Washington resume this fall, some students at the school will be under the watchful eye of a Central Intelligence Agency spook. In fact, some of them will even be learning from him.
This fall, Dr. Tim Thomas, a CIA agent specializing in "open source" data mining, will begin a two-year stint as an officer-in-residence at the UW's Institute for National Security Education and Research (INSER), which is financed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That office is an umbrella organization for groups such as the U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the CIA—which will provide the university with $2.5 million in grant money over the next five years.
There is nothing sinister in what is described here. We use this sort of technology in public relations. We use software that spiders the internet for anything concerning our clients and then analyze it for trends. The difference is that this sort of data-mining from publicly available sources is looking for different material for different purposes.
The threat to freedom does not come from data-mining, it comes from lack of privacy. If our financial, medical, and other personal data is subject to this sort of monitoring then indeed freedom is at risk.
Open source intelligence is reading my blog, subscribing to my twitter feed, and otherwise following publicly available information. Snooping is tapping my phone, reading my email, and a bunch of other things that infringe on my right to privacy. These are not subtle distinctions.