Social networking is here to stay. Facebook alone is reporting an active membership of 845 million users, motoring its way towards the billion mark. If it were a country it would be the third largest in the world behind China and India. In December 2011, Facebook announced that 250 million photographs are uploaded to its system every day. Whilst Facebook is, at present, the largest and most significant social networking organisation there are others which push the total number of social network users over the billion mark.
The ‘Internet World Stats’ website reports that Australia, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom all have Facebook ‘penetration’ rates of around 50% of their respective populations. A survey in 2011 of social media usage by the Pew Research Center in the US showed that 83% of 18 to 29 year olds use social networking compared with 70% of 30 to 49 year olds. Whilst the number drops in the 50 to 64 year old bracket it is still significant at 51%.
The good news for the national security community is that a great deal of intelligence can be gleaned from information that people put on their social networking sites from who their friends are (Facebook users have an average of 130 ‘friends’) to the date and time that uploaded pictures were taken. Geospatial information embedded in pictures taken by smartphones and other cameras may also show the precise location where the pictures were taken.
There is a downside though. A survey carried out by Charles Sturt University of recruits to organisations that use personnel with an assumed identity such as undercover police officers, indicated that just about everyone under 26 had their picture on the internet in some form. 85% of the responders were aware that their photograph had been uploaded by another person. This ‘Facebook Effect’, combined with the increasing sophistication of facial recognition software and the computing power now available to the individual through ‘the cloud’ may mean that it will be impossible to use undercover officers in the future.
In practical terms this means that every organisation, worldwide, that employs undercover officers will have to review the way that they operate. Any risk assessment will have to address the issue of whether the officer can be identified through social networks or the wider internet. If he or she can be so identified they should not be employed in an undercover capacity as the consequences could literally be fatal. With the growing popularity of social networking and the increased capabilities of facial recognition software the ability to deploy undercover officers may be about to end.
The Facebook Effect is however a benefit to those working in the international arena. Previously if information was needed on a foreign national, the requesting country might have to rely on the existence of a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT). Even between allies obtaining such information could be a long and tortuous process. Nowadays a vast amount of information will be available on the internet via social networking sites.
* These are the author’s personal views.