NSA Uses Online Data Mining to Predict Global Political Unrest

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Based on Edward Snowden’s revelations, opposition to National Security Agency (NSA) spying has spread across the world, upsetting diplomatic relations and threatening shifts in global power balances. However, as Cyril Mychalejko reports, the NSA network also includes an equally far-reaching, though lesser-known operation called the Open Source Indicators (OSI) Program. The OSI Program involves “academics working at the behest of a research branch of the NSA”—the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA—who analyze and interpret online data collected by other government agencies and contractors in order to predict future events, such as political protests, pandemics, resource shortages, mass migrations and economic crises.

The OSI Program seeks to develop automated analytic programs using open source information such as Facebook, Twitter posts, Google searches, and other publicly accessible data in order to stay one step ahead of current events.  “One so-called success story of the new Open Source Indicators Program,” Mychalejko reports, “involves a team of university academics and representatives from the private sector which ‘forecasted several protests in Brazil’ for the South American nation’s independence day.” The same team also claims to have successfully forecast protests in Paraguay after the 2012 coup against President Fernando Lugo.

In October 2013, during the 68th General Assembly of the United Nations, a group of Latin American presidents confronted the Obama Administration about its spying operations in the region, denouncing this affront to regional sovereignty.

Since 9/11, the US intelligence community has come under fire for failures to predict major events, from 9/11 to the uprising in Egypt.  The IARPA program seeks to fix that. “Our focus is to beat the news with greater accuracy and to do it faster by combining [various sets of] data, and we are seeing that it is possible,” said the OSI Program manager, Jason Matheny. By contrast, anthropology professor David Price, the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State, asserted, “We should all be worried” about the OSI Program.  “I don’t see them wanting to predict and prevent things like famine.”  Instead, Price warned, “They want to figure out ways to support regimes which support American interests as part of a larger political program we should all be worried about.”

The Wall Street Journal’s “CIO Report” has included a handful of stories by Rachael King on IARPA’s OSI Program, but otherwise this story has not received attention in the corporate press as of February 2014.


Cyril Mychalejko, “Big Brother’s New Crystal Ball: Washington Develops Online Data Mining Program to Predict Global Political Unrest,” Toward Freedom, October 23, 2013, http://www.towardfreedom.com/americas/3411-big-brothers-new-crystal-ball-washington-develops-online-data-mining-program-to-predict-global-political-unrest.

Laura Carlsen, “At the UN, a Latin American Rebellion,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 4, 2013, http://fpif.org/un-latin-american-rebellion/.

Additonal Sources:

Sharon Weinberger, “Social Science: Web of War,” Science, April 4, 2011, http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110330/full/471566a.html.

Rachael King, “Brazil Riots Predicted by U.S. Intelligence Research Project,” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2013, http://stream.wsj.com/story/latest-headlines/SS-2-63399/SS-2-323184/.

Rachael King, “How Spies May One Day Predict the Future,” Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2013, http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2013/06/10/how-spies-may-one-day-predict-the-future/.

Student Researcher:  Brenda Montanez (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)