from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2014, Issue No. 2
January 8, 2014
Secrecy News Blog: http://blogs.fas.org/secrecy/
- CIA CUTS OFF PUBLIC ACCESS TO ITS TRANSLATED NEWS REPORTS
- ASSESSING THE INTELLIGENCE IMPLICATIONS OF VIRTUAL WORLDS
CIA CUTS OFF PUBLIC ACCESS TO ITS TRANSLATED NEWS REPORTS
Beginning in 1974, the U.S. intelligence community provided the public with a broad selection of foreign news reports, updated daily. These were collected and translated by the Central Intelligence Agency's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which was reconstituted in 2004 as the Open Source Center (OSC).
But the CIA has now terminated public access to those news reports, as of December 31. The Open Source Center cut off its feed to the National Technical Information Service's World News Connection, which was the conduit for public access to these materials (through paid subscriptions).
Translation of foreign news reports had been one of the few direct services that U.S. intelligence agencies offered to the American public. Many journalists, scholars and researchers benefited from it, and citations to old FBIS translations can be found in innumerable journal articles and dissertations. The utility of this public service was diminished somewhat in recent years by copyright constraints on publication. But it remained a valuable if eclectic source of alternative perspectives on regional and international affairs in a searchable global database that extended across decades.
Now it's over.
Of course, the CIA will continue to collect and to translate foreign news reports at its Open Source Center. It just won't permit the public to access them.
CIA spokesman Christopher White explained: "The Open Source Center (OSC) remains committed to its mission of acquiring, analyzing, and disseminating open source information within the U.S. government. As technology evolves rapidly, the open source feed of information to the National Technical Information Service, Department of Commerce, has become outdated and it would be cost prohibitive to update this feed. In addition, publicly available open source information and machine translation capabilities are now readily available to individuals on the Internet."
The original 1974 decision to allow public access to FBIS products was "a particularly significant event," said FBIS deputy director J. Niles Riddel, speaking at a 1992 conference organized by Robert Steele's Open Source Solutions. Public access enabled "expanded participation in informed analysis of issues significant to U.S. policy interests," he said.
In fact, in the climate that prevailed in the early 1990s, public access to FBIS products was actually promoted by intelligence community officials. Mr. Riddel said then that it was "strongly supported by our customers in both the Intelligence and Policy Communities who value the work of private sector scholars and analysts who avail themselves of our material and contribute significantly to the national debate on contemporary issues such as economic competitiveness."
But that's all finished. Instead of adapting and expanding its open source product line in response to the needs and wants of the interested public, this four-decade CIA experiment in public engagement is concluded. Americans are invited to look elsewhere.
"We are sad to be losing this popular file," said Sherry Grant of ProQuest, which managed public subscriptions to the NTIS World News Connection. "However, as you can see, it's beyond our control."
There are some alternatives. "You can access a similar service from BBC Monitoring," suggested Rosy Wolfe, head of business development at BBC Monitoring. "I'd be happy to provide you with more information." At least someone is happy.
* * *A comparative assessment of foreign news coverage by FBIS and the BBC was presented in "The Scope of FBIS and BBC Open-Source Media Coverage, 1979-2008" by Kalev Leetaru, Studies in Intelligence, vol. 54, no. 1, March 2010.
"Unfortunately, many misconceptions about the application of OSINT [open source intelligence] continue to endure throughout the [intelligence] community," wrote Lieutenant Colonel Craig D. Morrow in "OSINT: Truths and Misconceptions," Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, April-June 2013, pp. 31-34.
"Though the future of FMM [foreign media monitoring] is unclear at this time, current users agree that it fills a capability gap to automatically collect, organize, and translate open source content near real time, making sense of the overwhelming amount of foreign language data available to intelligence analysts today." See "Foreign Media Monitoring: The Intelligence Analyst Tool for Exploiting Open Source Intelligence," by Tracy Blocker and Patrick O'Malley, Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, July-September 2013, pp. 36-38.
ASSESSING THE INTELLIGENCE IMPLICATIONS OF VIRTUAL WORLDS
Digitally-based virtual worlds and online games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft represent a qualitatively new phenomenon that could have profound impacts on culture, politics and national security, according to a newly disclosed report prepared in 2008 for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
"This technology has the potential to be an agent for transformational change in our society, our economy, and our efforts to safeguard the homeland," the report stated. "If virtual world technology enters the mainstream, criminals and US adversaries will find a way to exploit this technology for illegal and errant behavior."
The study was conducted as part of the 2008 ODNI SHARP (Summer Hard Problem) program and was just released under the Freedom of Information Act in redacted (and partially illegible) form. Though sponsored by ODNI, it was prepared by a mix of governmental and non-governmental authors and does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. intelligence community. See "3D Cyberspace Spillover: Where Virtual Worlds Get Real," July 2008 (large pdf):
Around the same time (2007-2009), U.S. intelligence personnel were actually exploring online games and gathering information on their users, according to classified documents released by Edward Snowden and reported in the New York Times last month. See "Spies Infiltrate a Fantasy Realm of Online Games" by Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott, New York Times, December 9, 2013.
The authors of the ODNI-sponsored report acknowledged that the empirical basis for their inquiry was thin.
"Much of the information in the public domain about the alleged terrorist exploitation of virtual worlds has been speculative rather than based upon substantive evidence. Although there is reliable information available concerning extremist and terrorist exploitation of the internet, for example Web 1.0, the same cannot be said of virtual world or Web 2.0."
"As of this report, there is little evidence that militant Islamist and jihadist groups have begun extensively exploiting the opportunities presented by virtual worlds."
"However, given that the more sophisticated groups of this type, including al-Qa'ida, have exploited the internet in very refined ways, they will likely soon seek to exploit newer virtual world technologies for recruiting, raising and transferring funds, training new recruits, conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, and planning attacks by using virtual representations of prospective targets."
Fancifully, the authors envision the creation of a virtual Usama bin Ladin carrying out his mission for centuries to come.
"Imagine that jihadist supporters create a detailed avatar of Usama bin Ladin and use his many voice recordings to animate the avatar for up-close virtual reality experiences that could be used to preach, convert, recruit, and propagate dogma to the media."
"The Bin Ladin avatar could preach and issue new fatwas for hundreds of years to come, as the fidelity of his likeness would be entirely believable and animated in new ways to keep him current and fresh." (p. 72)
The report includes various incidental observations of interest. It notes, for example, that "In many ways, South Korea is the world leader in adopting new technologies" including online games.
But it also reaches far afield, including references to Barbie Girls ("a quickly growing virtual world," though now closed) and Club Penguin ("over 12 million active users," now over 200 million, but most of whom are probably under ten years old) (p. 82).
"The growing number of global users, in conjunction with ongoing technological changes, will likely increase the difficulty that the Intelligence Community (IC) will encounter in its efforts to monitor the virtual realm," said the study, which was classified at the Confidential level. "Accordingly, outreach programs that enlist users as educated observers and reporters will be required to survey current and emerging systems more effectively."
Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.
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