Streams of Facebook, Instagram and other social media posts shared by smartphone-toting children and families at border crossings are providing U.S. intelligence analysts with a real-time map of the Syrian exodus. It’s not picture perfect, but it fills in gaps for the nation’s spy cartographers, a top Defense Department official says.
By searching public posts, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency fulfills its duty to provide decision-makers with past, present and future insights into locations during a global emergency.
Viewing Defense Department satellite imagery from “space isn’t a great way to sense human activity of that magnitude, but people talking on the ground and people tweeting about lack of food, or pictures about lines at gates at borders is really incredibly useful,” Sue Gordon, the spy map agency’s deputy director, tells Nextgov. “You will have the ability to see what’s going on from an intelligence perspective, but social media will give you that on-the-ground look to help you correlate disparate activities or to get a different view of what is real.”
Photos and vignettes that refugees and relief workers publish depict the kindnesses and bloodshed arising from a civil war that has torn an estimated 14 million people from their homes.
The images are made possible, in part, by governmental organizations. As of August, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had distributed 33,000 mobile SIM cards to displaced Syrians in Jordan alone.
Geotags on posts — metadata indicating where and when messages were sent — can be searched or plotted on a map.
For example, one…