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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
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
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
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
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
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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