The US government is funding research into social networking sites and how to gather and store personal data published on them, according to the New Scientist magazine.
At the same time, US lawmakers are attempting to force the social networking sites themselves to control the amount and kind of information that people, particularly children, can put on the sites.
Social networking sites have enjoyed phenomenal recent success. Industry leader MySpace has attracted 85m members with new members joining at a rate of 250,000 per day. Users, most often young people, use their own pages to swap information about themselves, their hobbies, their friends and their favourite music and films.
That kind of information is the subject of a research paper by a team from the University of Maryland in Baltimore. The paper, Semantic Analytics on Social Networks, proposes methods for combining the data posted on social networking sites and other computer databases to reveal information about individuals.
The New Scientist discovered that ARDA (Advanced Research Development Agency), credited in a footnote with part-funding the research paper, is a branch of the National Security Agency, the US government body responsible for surveillance and code breaking.
The news follows recent revelations about secret surveillance of US citizens by other US security agencies. The New York Times recently revealed that the US government is tracking financial transactions of some citizens and non-citizens, while it has also emerged in recent weeks that the government has tracked phone call activity of some citizens since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
In 2003 US Congress stopped Pentagon projects being operated by retired admiral John Poindexter which aimed to mine public and private records for information on individuals suspected of terrorist activity.
Congress ended the programmes because they were worried that they might put innocent Americans under suspicion, according to a February 2004 Associated Press report. That report identified ARDA as the office which would carry out software development in the gathering of information from disparate sources.
The New Scientist report said a Congressional Research Service report identified ARDA, since renamed the Disruptive Technologies Office, as a body which funds research into issues of use to the intelligence community.
Meanwhile, social networking sites have hit the headlines for other reasons. The US Congress is attempting to limit the ways in which young people use the sites in order to protect young people and children. The Energy and Commerce subcommittee has just finished a series of hearings on pornography and plans to issue legislation to protect children online. The plans will contain some measures to force social network sites to protect its users, said US press reports.
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