10
Jun

How Dangerous Is a Terrorist with a Twitter Handle? There’s an effort afoot in Congress to kick terrorists off Twitter. But the government’s spies aren’t so sure.

BY JONATHAN SCHANZER

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Sensational reports in the Guardian and Washington Post recently blew the lid off of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) electronic surveillance efforts, which have harvested everything from phone calls to Facebook posts for intelligence purposes.

Curiously, Twitter still appears outside the grasp of the NSA’s PRISM program, which gathers information from major U.S. Internet companies. But a group of lawmakers are concerned that the popular microblogging service has become too hospitable an environment for terrorist groups. The platform hosts a number of official feeds for terrorist groups, including Somalia’s al-Shabab, the North African al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra, the Taliban, and Hamas.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), who currently serves as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, is looking to curtail terrorist activity on Twitter. Poe is mindful of free speech concerns, but believes terrorist organizations are not entitled to the same free speech protections. As he argued last year, after watching Hamas use the platform for propaganda purposes during its November war with Israel, Twitter must recognize sooner rather than later that social media is a tool for the terrorists.”

First Amendment activists will almost certainly cry foul. But they will not be alone: This would be one of their rare moments of harmony with the U.S. intelligence community, which has used Twitter feeds of extremists to monitor their messaging for strategies, tactics, and policies. America’s spies also monitor the feeds of extremist personalities and groups to see who follows them and who sympathizes with them, with the goal of identifying potential security threats at home or abroad. In fact, Twitter has made it possible for official bodies to interact with a banned group — even if those interactions haven’t been pleasant.

So while there is no evidence as of yet Twitter has been mined by PRISM — other classified programs may exist, of course — the intelligence community exploits it in other important ways. One former official at the National Security Agency notes, “Twitter is an incredible source to learn what these groups are doing. The FBI, CIA, and NSA not only get a lot of intelligence from Twitter, but there is also a lot of manipulation going on.” Read more…

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on June 8, 2013.

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