FBI Wants Machine Learning Tools To Track Mobile Messaging Sites

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation is seeking software and expertise to monitor social media accounts and mobile messaging platforms for possible terrorist activity, according to procurement documents.

The FBI released a Jan. 21 request for information under the ambiguous title “Information Technology Services.” Attached to the listing is a document outlining the bureau’s interest in software tools “utilizing machine-learning models” to assist FBI agents in analyzing large, open-source data sets. The document specifies social media and mobile messaging platforms as online channels where investigators seek to upgrade their intelligence-gathering capabilities.

The contract will support the FBI’s Counterterrorism Advanced Projects Unit (CTAPU), established to supply high-tech support for investigations within the U.S. and abroad, according to the document. The CTAPU’s work may involve attempts to “exploit mobile messaging and social media platforms” and analyze “seized counterterrorism and counterintelligence digital media” for clues into future threats.

To be considered for the contract, potential bidders must be qualified small businesses possessing expertise with machine learning and open-source data. They must also have experience guiding software projects through the complete research and development lifecycle. Interested vendors have until Feb. 9 to respond to the solicitation.

Photo credit: Bloomberg media

The announcement comes two weeks after rioters supporting former President Donald J. Trumpransacked the U.S. Capitol and clashed with law enforcement officers, leaving five dead. Federal agencies are “aggressively” pursuing investigations into individuals suspected of vandalizing the Capitol and assaulting police officers. The FBI also continues to investigate individuals suspected of planting explosive devices at the headquarters of the Democratic and Republican parties.

In the days following the riot, social media platforms Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. cracked down on alleged disinformation and suspended hundreds of accounts, including that of former President Trump. Days later, Amazon Web Services Inc. voided its IT infrastructure contract with social media site, Parler, citing Parler’s failure to police extremist content on its platform.

In response, conservative activists and pro-Trump online communities are migrating to alternative social media sites like Gab.com or mobile messaging applications, such as the Dubai-based Telegram, according to a Jan. 11 Bloomberg report. Fragmentation of right-wing online media poses a challenge for law enforcement efforts to identify criminal suspects from the Jan. 6 riot, and to piece together clues warning of future violence.

There are currently few institutional restrictions on the FBI’s ability to review public social media posts in the course of investigations. But private messaging applications pose potential legal and technical obstacles. FBI guidelines prohibit agents from attempting to infiltrate closed online chats without first demonstrating evidence of criminal activity. Use of end-to-end encryption by services like Telegram and Signal further constrains the bureau’s intelligence-gathering abilities.

The procurement coincides with President Joe Biden’s first steps to confront what he has called “domestic terrorism.” On Jan. 21, the same day the RFI was released, the White House ordered federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, to perform a “comprehensive threat assessment” on domestic extremism.

The FBI did not respond to Bloomberg Government’s request for comment.

To contact the analyst on this story: Chris Cornillie in Washington at ccornillie@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Clark at mclark@ic.bloombergindustry.com

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