Published: January 8, 2016
OTTAWA—Canada’s military wants to monitor and analyze the world’s social media streams, with 24/7 access to real-time and historical posts on websites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
And they don’t want anyone knowing it’s them doing the monitoring, either.
The Department of National Defence and its research wing, Defence Research and Development Canada, are in the market for a new Internet monitoring platform that can analyze and filter the daily firehose of social media posts.
“At an operational and tactical level, social data can provide information on events as they unfold, key influencers, sentiment of local populations, and even help to geo-locate people of interest,” documents posted online Thursday read.
“Given the reactive and long-term nature of DND intelligence operations, access to this information is essential to maintaining situational awareness and achieving our global mandate.”
The platform envisioned by the military will pull from the most popular social media sites — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram — but will also track data from a much broader range of websites.
Blogs, message boards, Reddit, even the comment sections on news sites will be brought in for review and analysis by as many as 40 intelligence officers.
A spokesman for DND said the platform is not intended to be directed at Canadians’ online activity, and will comply with Canadian privacy laws.
Instead, the platform will be directed at “non-democratic states,” although they provide few hints as to which countries Canada’s military spies intend to monitor.
One hint comes from the documents, however: the platform will be required to bring in data in English and French, but also process languages like “Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, (and) Russian.”
“Restrictive governments are and will continue to develop more nuanced, insidious and effective mechanisms for exploiting social media while maintaining already pervasive control over traditional media sources,” the documents read. “Social media, and specifically Twitter, could be used to help understand populations and governments in countries of interest as a novel sensor for instability.”
Trouble is, countries with “restrictive governments” aren’t always happy to be spied on by Western military intelligence. The documents explicitly states that the platform should be “not directly attributable” to Canada’s military.
The military is also requiring all data related to the project be stored on secured servers on Canadian soil.
“It makes sense, because it’s a hole that needs to be plugged,” Bokhari said. “And Canada is not alone. Pretty much any major power in the world that’s concerned about terrorism, cybercrime, cyberattacks from hostile countries, they have to be looking into this.”
While the military does not plan to “direct” their intelligence gathering at Canadians at home or abroad, there is always the possibility that Canadians’ information could be accidentally scooped up. When this happens by established electronic spying agencies, like Canada’s Communications Security Establishment or the U.S. National Security Agency, it’s known as “incidental” collection.
For Christopher Parsons, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, one question is how the military intends to “minimize” this incidental collection.
“They might try to exclude Canada itself, but of course Canadians travel all around the world. So if you’re targeting people or monitoring social media in certain regions of the world, you can be guaranteed that there are Canadians travelling there for business or pleasure or what have you,” Parsons said.
Parsons said he was also surprised that social media platforms popular in other parts of the world – LiveJournal in Russia, Weibo in China – did not make the list of websites the military wants to target. He speculated that might be due to operational security concerns more than oversight.
The Star requested an interview with the Department of National Defence Thursday morning. No spokesperson was available to answer questions.