The company also recently released a geospatial analysis of Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based wing of Al Qaeda. Using the company's Signature Analyst program, GeoEye says it was able to identify areas not previously recognized as high-threat where Al Shabaab might emerge.
The ability to use analytics to make predictions—whether about IED production sites or locations of future terrorist attacks—may sound attractive, particularly when looking at a catastrophic event like Benghazi, but the reality is that this sort of forecasting still falls far short of being a crystal ball. GeoEye claims it had 66% accuracy for predicting attacks for one government client.
In that case, the benefit is really in helping someone know where to look rather than in predicting a discrete event, according to James Anderson of GeoEye's analytics division. “Sixty-six percent by itself sounds not-that-much-better than a coin toss, but when you are eliminating 98% of your terrain that's a very significant reduction,” he says.
Lockheed Martin is also offering its own program for analyzing social media, called LM Wisdom, which it touts as “transforming Internet chatter into usable intelligence.” Lockheed started Wisdom about five years ago, but at the time was collecting information primarily from news sources. The company has more recently moved into collecting from social media, according to Ollie Luba, Lockheed principal for open-source intelligence integration.
Meantime, private companies increasingly are also concerned about what social media postings on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn might mean. “We have some commercial clients where we're looking at their security postures,” says Luba. “We're looking at when organizations are starting to protest against them. You can pick up some of those early protests right away. We start watching that and looking at the trends to see if it could be something or not.”
Lockheed Martin is also the prime contractor for a program sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency called the Integrated Crisis Early Warning System, which uses news media to forecast specific events, such as revolutions or political instability. “Probably our next step in rolling out some of those analytics will be taking in social media,” says Luba.
How much precision can these sort of analytic capabilities provide the defense and intelligence community? One problem of any software program is that it is only as good as the data it is being fed, a lesson learned from an October Senate report that blasted the Homeland Security Department's fusion centers, which are supposed to collect and analyze domestic intelligence to help identify potential terrorist plots. The report said those centers had “not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts,” quoting one official as saying it produced “a bunch of crap.”
Indeed, when it comes to fusing data, whether in the U.S. or abroad, the ultimate question is whether millions of daily Tweets and Facebook postings can be transformed into useful intelligence. “Posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in response to revelations that a militant group took credit for Benghazi just hours after the attack. “It just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be.”
In the end, it could be that the work of companies like TerraGo may prove that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. While Facebook and other forms of social media would not have predicted the Benghazi attack, it could have—if monitored and analyzed in real-time—provided early warnings that something was brewing and that perhaps more resources were needed in the area.