It is now possible for people's movements to be tracked and future behaviour predicted by mining data from social networking websites.
According to an article in The Guardian, multinational defence firm Raytheon has secretly developed software which can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.
The software – named Rapid Information Overlay Technology (Riot) – has not yet been sold to any clients, Raytheon says. It has, however, been shared with the US government and industry as part of a joint R&D effort to help build a national security system capable on analysing "trillions of entities" from cyberspace.
Riot makes it possible to easily gain an entire snapshot of somebody's life, including friends and places visited charted on a map. In many quarters, this has raised concerns about online privacy and civil liberties.
The Guardian obtained a video in which a Raytheon investigator explains that photos posted by users of social networks sometimes contain geographical details automatically embedded by smartphones within so-called "exif header data." This enables Riot to not only show the photos posted by individuals, but the exact location at which they were taken.
The investigator, Brian Urch, demonstrated the software in the video. "We're going to track one of our own employees, a Raytheon staff member used as an example target. With information gathered from social networks, Riot quickly reveals Nick frequently visits Washington Nationals Park, where on one occasion he snapped a photograph of himself posing with a blonde haired woman. We know where Nick's going, we know what Nick looks like, now we want to try to predict where he may be in the future," explains Urch.
Riot can reveal the associations and relationships between individuals by finding out who they have communicated with on Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and Foursquare, an app used by 25 million peopole to tell their friends of their whereabouts. It can show the top 10 places visited – and the dates and times of the visits.
Obtaining information from public websites for law enforcement purposes is considered legal in most countries. According to records published by the US government's trade controls department, the technology export regulations classification allows it to be shipped "without a licence to most destinations under most circumstances".