CIA boosts online spying by investing in social media surveillance companies
The CIA wants to spy on social media posts to identify potential threatsReuters

The CIA's venture capital branch, In-Q-Tel, is funding some of the top new Silicon Valley startups that specialise in social media and data mining. Named after the James Bond fictional character Q, the venture capital firm is known to fund tech firms working on unusual and innovative products and services.

According to an official document obtained by Intercept, the CIA has invested in four specialist tech firms – Dataminr, Geofeedia, TransVoyant and Pathar. The intelligence agency intends to incorporate the technology from the companies it has invested in to ensure that it can develop rapid identification of potential threats. In-Q-Tel has funded 38 tech firms with varying specialities.

Dataminr specialises in identifying Twitter trends by using data streams obtained via the Twitter's API, while Geofeedia focuses on monitoring geotagged social media posts to identify and oversee breaking news events in real time. Pathar's flagship Dunami device tracks social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to identify potential signs of radicalisation and also highlight centres of influence and network associations. One of Pathar's current client's is the FBI which is also using Dunami to monitor networks of associations. TransVoyant monitors social media data as well and claims to be able to identify gang-related incidents and threats to journalists. The firm has worked with the US military in Afghanistan.

In-Q-Tel is known for investing in tech firms developing innovative products. The venture capital arm recently invested in a skincare line that has patented a painless method of extracting human DNA from the skin. In-Q-Tel has also developed a special tech wing which houses a tech lab in Silicon Valley called Lab41. In February Lab41 published an article demonstrating how big data can be analysed by the intelligence community to identify relevant patterns and monitor potential threats.

The CIA's keen interest in monitoring social media data is reflective of the US and other international government's sentiments, which collectively support additional online surveillance in order to identify and prevent potential threats. However, the increased government surveillance, especially on private citizens has been criticised by many privacy advocates who caution against the government's abuse of surveillance power.