Last week, the New York Times and some civil libertarians got all grossed out by a government plan to monitor the foreign press for its opinions of America. "It is just creepy and Orwellian," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said.So no one tell Lucy about this system keeping tabs on overseas TV channels, 24/7, for the military, ok? She's liable to get real upset.BBN Technologies' Broadcast Monitoring program pumps a TV channel -- Al-Jazeera, say -- through a set of servers, which do a quick-and-dirty transcription of the audio into Arabic text. Then, that text is ported into English.The initial results are something short of Berlitz. "Did not professional background political motive for fighting veil as might be introduction," was the interpretation for one recent Al-Jazeera news snippet. But it's good enough for keyword searches, or to give human translators the heads-up when there's something relevant happening.A quick search for "Saddam trial," at yesterday's Association of the United States Army convention, produced 43 hits from the last week of Al-Jazeera coverage. (The system keeps 90 days' worth of TV on its hard drive.) Click on any of those hits, and you instantly get the Arabic text, the English text, and the video segment. It's like TiVo for spies -- with a transcription service built in.A military psyops task force in Iraq is already using the system, according to BBN's Martha Lillie. So is U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. The Army's 5th Special Forces Group, currently stationed at Iraq's Balad Air Base, is next in line.All of these groups are using the systems (which go for anywhere from $110,000 to $190,000 per channel) for pretty much the same thing: track what the foreign press is saying about the U.S. It's part of a larger effort in the government to stop relying quite so much on snitches and mega-expensive spy satellites -- and start paying more attention to so-called "open source intelligence." Stuff out in the public sphere, in other words. "Perhaps our best source of information is the television," Rear Adm. Ronald Henderson, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, recently noted.And while that may give some people the willies, it sure sounds like a good idea to me. We know jihadists are using everything from Hotmail to YouTube to Al-Jazeera to spread their messages, and do their business. Why not track them out in the open? Think of it as the Web 2.0 approach to spying: Let the bad guys supply the intel for us; we'll just make the connections.
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