That joke you made on your MySpace page about taking flying lessons but only wanting to learn how to land? The pictures of you posing with a fake rocket launcher? Sure, they seem funny now, but if the National Security Agency has its way, all of that information could go down on your permanent record, or into a security profile that could land you on a terror watch list.
According to a report on NewScientist.com, the Web site for the long-running British technology magazine, the National Security Agency is funding research into the "mass harvesting" of information people post about themselves on social-networking sites like Friendster and MySpace.
"I am continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves," said Jon Callas, chief security officer at the international encryption software company PGP.
New Scientist reported that the NSA, known for eavesdropping and code-breaking — and, more recently, for cataloging domestic phone records and monitoring overseas phone calls as part of its controversial warrantless wiretapping program (see "NSA Out To Track 'Every Call Ever Made'; Bush Calls Move 'Lawful' ") — is trying to figure out a way to use advances in Internet technology to combine data from social-networking Web sites with details such as banking, retail and property records. According to the site, that treasure trove of personal information would allow the NSA to build "extensive, all-embracing personal profiles of individuals."
Even as the White House has urged Congress not to investigate the NSA's actions on wiretapping — there were reports this week that Vice President Dick Cheney lobbied telephone companies not to discuss classified information about domestic intelligence programs with the Senate Judiciary Committee — the NSA is pursuing plans to tap the Web as a deeper resource of information.
While phone records can help build a very basic picture of someone's web of contacts and show how many degrees separate each member of a group, NewScientist reports that by adding social-networking information to the phone data, the NSA could connect people at deeper levels through shared activities and interests, like taking flying lessons.
If your page links to your friends' blogs and includes details about political, sexual or media preferences, that information could be used to build a more detailed profile, which Callas said is another reason users should think twice about the personal information they are posting for the world to see.
"You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your résumé," Callas told New Scientist. "People don't realize you get Googled just to get a job interview these days."
Data on the Web currently comes in a variety of incompatible formats that makes it difficult for the NSA to combine social-networking details with information on purchases, your movements (which are trackable through cell-phone records) and major financial transactions like buying a house — but that day might arrive soon. Over the next few years, New Scientist reports that the rise of the "semantic Web" could help iron out those incompatibilities using the Resource Description Framework, a common structure that will give all that data easily identifiable tags.
"RDF turns the Web into a kind of universal spreadsheet that is readable by computers as well as people," said David de Roure of Britain's University of Southampton. The magazine cautions that the NSA has not announced a plan to mine social networks using the semantic Web, but its interest in the technology was revealed in a funding footnote on a research paper titled, "Semantic Analytics on Social Networks," that was delivered at a gathering of Internet experts in May.
The footnote indicated that the paper was funded in part by the Advanced Research Development Activity, an organization that spends NSA money on research to "solve some of the most critical problems facing the U.S. intelligence community." One of the main jobs of ARDA (the group's name was recently changed to the Disruptive Technology Office) is to decipher the mountains of data the NSA collects.