The Arab Spring, which rose from street-level dissent to form a mass movement, might not have come as a surprise to intelligence agencies if only they had been able to read the tea leaves of social media. The characteristics of social media that differentiate it from other messaging media are compelling intelligence officials to change the way they derive valuable information from it. As a result, experts are calling for the creation of a new discipline that represents a separate branch of intelligence activity.
The type of information found on social media is far different from that intercepted via any other type of messaging media. It is pushed by its sender out to large numbers of people. It often consists of information about individuals that is not readily available elsewhere. And, it can represent an indication of groupthink that is not discernible from traditional intercepts.
Sir David Omand is a visiting professor, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He is a former U.K. intelligence and security coordinator and the former director of the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which provides both signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance as one of the United Kingdom’s three intelligence agencies.
“This is more than a shift from one kind of communications medium to another,” Omand declares. He points out that SIGINT experts have accommodated the shift from copper wires to fiber because the same messages were being carried by the different media. The only change was the transport mode.