Social media in defence intelligence gathering


Last year South African soldiers deployed in the DRC as part of MONUSCO came under fire from rebel groups they speedily resorted to social media to let family and friends know they were safe.

This is one of the myriad uses of social media, which an SA Air Force (SAAF) intelligence officer sees as being a not so far-fetched tool in intelligence gathering.

Lieutenant Colonel QS Dickson writes in the SAAF publication, Ad Astra, that “the Internet has always been the savvy intelligence organisation’s most valuable resource.
“A good intelligence analyst can use suitably vetted information from the Internet for many purposes and many significant finds, among them pictures, text and video. All have yielded valuable intelligence input. There are vast amounts of relevant information out there, just waiting to be discovered.

To properly exploit this wealth of information, intelligence organisations need to know how through the use of well trained, technologically literate personnel who are properly versed in the use and integration of various disparate sources.

One of these is twitter and the colonel maintains it is not as preposterous as many might think.
“twitter has become known as the ultimate source of near real-time news. A breaking story, a natural disaster, a military coup. More often than not the first information of this will be on twitter, often hours before news agencies run the story.
“A large international user base, near real-time reports from all over the world, an effective search and indexing system? Sounds like a valuable overt collection resource for intelligence purposes if properly leveraged.”

He points out twitter was used to determine when and where attacks were being launched against Libya (operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector) hours in advance of official notification.
“Additionally, the top secret raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan was, if unwittingly, reported by Sohaib Athar(@reallyvirtual) while it was in progress. “More recently the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) gave live tweets of its controversial Gaza operation (Operation Pillar of Defence) in near real-time.
“Closer to home, in Africa, twitter is also a factor to consider as the Internet becomes available in more and more areas, particularly via mobile phones. Among others, M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) gained notoriety for their use of Twitter (M23 Congo RDC@23congordc).
“The fact is intelligence strategies of the future cannot afford to ignore the new domains opened up by Internet social media. As a form of overt collection it must be considered and exploited. It is likely most intelligence organisations are already including it in their strategies.
“The United States Naval Postgraduate School, for instance, has developed a new way to gather intelligence using the twitter application programming interface (API) and software called Dynamic Twitter Network Analysis (DTNA). This allows analysts to process large amounts of real time twitter data by hashtags, keywords, location and other parameters and utilise this to generate information of potential intelligence value.
“It becomes obvious twitter, is in fact, a bona fide overt source of intelligence gathering and that it is one of many opportunities to leverage the use of social media.”

After the surge in use of social media by South African soldiers in the DRC, the SA National Defence Force’s (SANDF) top communications team in its directorate: corporate communication held a workshop to look at ways of utilising it to the advantage of soldiers and their families. As far as can be ascertained recommendations from this workshop have been passed to Defence Intelligence for further input but no further information has yet been made available.