Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Tin Foil Hat Brigade, Episode I

This is deep in conspiracy theory land; much deeper than I usually explore. I admit that up front, and this should probably be taken more as a bit of humor than anything else. But, nevertheless, there are a two strands I'd like to tie together.

The US Government is very interested in a field that they call "Human Terrain Mapping" (wikipedia, BAA #1, BAA #2 as examples), which is basically understanding the pulse of the street: what people are thinking, their moods, and so forth. There's a strong anthropology / sociology component to it, as well as some psychology. One of the crucial things in doing this well is, I believe, a lot of current information about people's moods. There's a huge amount of interest from organizations such as DARPA in mining things like Twitter, blogs, and Facebook to get at mood and sentiment at a population level. There's also interest from high-frequency traders in seeing if this information can be used to do stock market trades. So, this is not exactly just an academic issue.

One of the standard problems here is getting the data. The "firehose" from Twitter costs around $30K a month; Facebook has never offered it, as far as I know. I have no problems with them selling this data; both of these are private companies, trying to make a profit. (Although, as a researcher, I'd love to get a "big" dataset from them.)

Continuing to use Twitter and Facebook as examples, both of these companies were relatively cheap to start up: maybe on the order of $200 million of so. I think they are both even cash-flow positive now. Especially in the world of military systems, $200 million is a total steal. A good spy satellite is easily $1-5 billion.

Now, to put on my tin-foil hat. I wouldn't be surprised if a three-letter agency (CIA, NSA, NRO) supplied meaningful amounts of capitol to one or more of these organizations, in exchange for real-time access to the data. It would have been a very cheap investment for an amazing data stream.

Here's the other thread I want to pull in to this discussion. Facebook (and to a lesser extent, Twitter) have been going to some extents to avoid opening up their books. For instance, here, a moderately complex attempt to get around SEC regulations. What tweaked my thinking was Felix's comment, "Facebook seems to be going out of its way to avoid public scrutiny."

What if there is a $250M hole in the books that roughly says "CIA?"

Not that it's stopped me from using Facebook.


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