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Spies trawl Friends Reunited for terror whispers

Spies trawl Friends Reunited for terror whispers
Spies trawl Friends Reunited for terror whispers

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By Holly Watt and Robert Winnett
The Sunday Times  =09
August 06, 2006

The intelligence services have admitted to monitoring the Friends Reunited 
website which allows old school and work colleagues to keep in touch over 
the internet.

Spies use the site to help them to "map" social networks and identify 
people who have come into contact with those who may pose a threat to 
national security.

The controversial initiative is part of a new secret programme to monitor 
thousands of internet blogs, bulletin boards and web chatrooms which the 
intelligence services are coming to regard as an =C2=93essential=C2=94 source of 

The Cabinet Office has formed the Open Source Joint Working Group (OSJWG) 
comprised of officers from MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to exploit the new "open 
sources" of intelligence. The group liases closely with a new American 
unit set up by the CIA.

Websites being scrutinised are thought to range from online "networking" 
sites aimed at teenagers such as Bebo and MySpace, to obscure blogs set up 
by Nepalese guerrilla groups. The spooks have even bought specialist 
"pod-mining" software to snoop on podcasts around the world.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office confirmed that Friends Reunited was 
among the sites being monitored: "There is obviously stuff that can be 
grabbed by anybody without intercepting communications. There is constant 
monitoring of sites for information which is open and can be of use."

There are nearly 7m blogs in Britain alone, which have been doubling in 
number every few months in recent years. Those now running blogs include 
MPs' researchers, policemen and squaddies serving on the frontline.

Sophisticated software programs are used to trawl the web looking for key 
words and people. Thousands of websites have been graded on their 
usefulness to the intelligence agencies. The information is then studied 
and "assessed" by intelligence analysts - who also manually watch sites of 
particular interest - from their base at the "knowledge centre" at GCHQ in 

Training manuals issued by Nato and used by intelligence agencies 
throughout the world reveal how spies can find information on the normal 
internet and on the so-called "deep web" - sites that have no links to 
others on the internet and therefore cannot be trawled by conventional 
search engines.

Nato has set up its own deep web search engine for use by agents working 
for member countries. One manual seen by The Sunday Times, entitled the 
Nato Open Source Intelligence Handbook, states: "Over 250,000 databases 
are now available within the deep web, a great many of potential 
intelligence value."

The manuals reveal how spies can "lurk" and remain anonymous online.  "It 
is quite possible to surf the web without openly identifying your 
identity, purpose or intentions," says a handbook called Intelligence 
Exploitation of the Internet. "This is simply a case of I won't tell you 
unless you ask'.

"There may be occasions when you will not want others to know exactly who 
you are or who you work for . . . it is reasonably easy to create an 
anonymous persona on the web."

Spies have also begun communicating with people in chatrooms to elicit 
information. But one Nato manual advises: "An anonymous persona should 
only be used for occasional requests for information. Any development of a 
relationship using the internet should be discouraged. This is in the 
field of other specialists, typically in the realm of Humint (human 
intelligence). Without proper control, such practices can lead to 

It concludes: "It is better to be discreet when searching on the internet 
rather than employ deception."

On both sides of the Atlantic, snooping on thousands of websites is being 
criticised by privacy campaigners.

In America there was a storm of controversy over the extent of the 
government's tracking of ostensibly private information, including 
people's blogs, and also details of telephone records and spending habits.

Simon Davies, director of the pressure group Privacy International, said: 
"People are starting to put very intimate details about themselves and 
other people online. It's fertile territory for intelligence agencies.

"You can convince people to reveal information they never normally would, 
and you can extract information about their friends and associates."

Britain has long experience of gathering open source information. In 1939 
the government formed the BBC monitoring service which sifts newspapers, 
radio and television broadcasts from around the world.

Mark Lowenthal, an assistant director of the CIA until earlier this year, 
said open source information had long been undervalued. "We're playing a 
lot of catch-up," he said.

Professor Michael Batty, of University College London, said advances in 
analytical methods were increasing the available intelligence.  
"Connecting databases which traditionally have not been connected can 
provide enormous amounts of information," he said.

Private organisations are also supplying detailed analysis of open source 
information. The SITE Institute in Washington, founded by Rita Katz, 
analyses "corporate records, tax forms, credit reports, video tapes, 
internet news group postings and owned websites, among other resources, 
for indicators of illicit activity".

Katz, who was born in Iraq and speaks fluent Arabic, spends hours each day 
monitoring the password-protected online chatrooms in which Islamic 
terrorists discuss politics and pass on tips - how to disperse botulinum 
toxin or transfer funds, or which suicide vest is best.

She can identify potential suicide bombers by tracking when they announce 
they will be surrendering their online user names to become martyrs.

"It is completely addictive. You wake up thinking, I've been offline for 
several hours but the terrorists have been making plans," she said.

Victory in the secret internet war may be some way off for the 
intelligence agencies, however.

The director of one firm providing information to the British government 
said: "The bad guys do open source intelligence as well.  It's amazing how 
much you can find out about what the Americans are buying and what their 
capabilities are."
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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