Data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request reveals just how popular the NSA's social network for spies called eChirp really is.
Last week, the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks made headlines once more for publishing a large cache of alleged secret files about the CIA's hacking operations.
Those files apparently came from a little-known service for the US intelligence community known as Intellipedia. Many probably still don't know of the "Wikipedia for spies." And many probably don't know that there's also a Twitter for spies, called eChirp. The service, which was originally pitched as a "microblogging application" that provides "a fast, informal messaging system to enhance and promote information sharing and collaboration," is widely used among American spies. In fact, thanks to data obtained by a Motherboard through a Freedom of Information Act request, we now know just how many people, and how many posts, there were on eChirp.
As of the end of 2013, according to the NSA's response to my FOIA, there were 60,593 top secret users, 25,344 secret users, and 15,468 unclassified users on eChirp. These produced 875,160 top secret posts, 51,632 secret posts, and 56,601 unclassified posts on eChirp.
The invitation-only service was inspired by Twitter and works pretty much the same way, allowing users to post messages of 140 characters or less, it "enhances and promotes information-sharing," according to the US National Security Agency (NSA) , who's in charge of managing eChirp. "eChirp is perfectly suited for fast-breaking situational awareness events," the agency said in an emailed statement.
eChirp is part of Intelink, a group of secure intranets used by the American spy apparatus. Anyone who works in the intelligence community, and who has access to Intelink, can also use eChirp. Users can share links, ask questions, and connect with fellow intelligence analysts who have the same interests. But its practical usefulness is a bit unclear.
"It was as useful as social media will be, depending on who you follow and what information you share," Matt Devost, a cybersecurity expert who's worked for the Department of Defense and who's been on eChirp, told in an interview. "But in an unclassified environment what you were linking to was content on the internet anyway. So it seemed silly at times to have a closed network just to link back out to the internet."
Mark Otley, a terrorism expert who's been on eChirp in the past, said he used it to connect with people across organizations, and be a resource for others. eChirp was also great to "foster friendships," he added.
"I really think that aids cooperation between the various [Intelligence Community] components," Otley wrote in an email. "I know it made me more comfortable asking for help when I knew a friend would be either answering my request or forwarding it directly to the best person to do so. I also enjoyed being on the receiving end, helping someone who was not only a colleague, but a friend." "It seemed silly at times to have a closed network just to link back out to the internet."
eChirp is not the only tool for American spies that's inspired by real-world social media. The intelligence community also has A-Space, a Facebook clone. The NSA could not provide stats on A-Space, but a former intelligence analyst who asked to remain anonymous said that when she used it a few years ago it was a mix between MySpace and Facebook. Analysts would use it to share information or post preliminary intelligence analysis looking for feedback and help.
"If one was working on China and something happened, they could post it to A-Space, comment and share their opinion, a preliminary analysis, and others could join in the discussion, agree, disagree, add information, etc," the analyst said in an email.
Unfortunately, the NSA did not send us screenshots of how these platforms look. So if you are or have been on them and have pictures of how they actually look like, please send them to me via your preferred secure means of communication. All in all, these tools remind us that these days spies are indeed just like us, tweeting away and searching for information on web encyclopedias.