People in black trench coats might soon be chasing blogs.
Blogs, short for Web logs, are personal online journals. Individuals post them on Web sites to report or comment on news especially, but also on their personal lives or most any subject.
Some blogs are whimsical and deal with "soft" subjects. Others, though, are cutting edge in delivering information and opinion.
As a result, some analysts say U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials might be starting to track blogs for important bits of information. This interest is a sign of how far Web media such as blogs have come in reshaping the data-collection habits of intelligence professionals and others, even with the knowledge that the accuracy of what's reported in some blogs is questionable.
Still, a panel of folks who work in the U.S. intelligence field - some of them spies or former spies - discussed this month at a conference in Washington the idea of tracking blogs.
"News and intelligence is about listening with a critical ear, and blogs are just another conversation to listen to and evaluate. They also are closer to (some situations) and may serve as early alerts," said Jock Gill, a former adviser on Internet media to President Clinton, in a later phone interview, after he spoke on the panel.
Some panel and conference participants, because of their profession, could not be identified. But another who could is Robert Steele, another blog booster. The former U.S. intelligence officer said "absolutely" that blogs are valid sources of intelligence and news, though he said authenticating the information in blogs "leaves a lot to be desired."
Steele is founder and CEO of consulting firm OSS.Net, which organized the conference. The OSS '04 conference focused on public sources of intelligence. (OSS stands for open source solutions. In this case, open source is an intelligence term, not a reference to Linux and open source software.)
China Wants To Block Blogs
The CIA and FBI haven't publicly commented about use of blogs in their work, but many D.C. observers believe both agencies monitor certain blogs.
At least one nation, China, is actively tracking blogs. It's also reportedly trying to block blogs. Several press reports earlier this year said the government shut two blogging services and banned access to all Web logs by Chinese citizens.
Many journalists write blogs and use other blogs to help find sources or verify facts and rumors. Blogs hail from just about any spot on the globe. They can provide first-hand insights into local events and thinking, even in parts of the world where there's little official information.
One example is the "Baghdad Blogger."
In March 2003, as U.S. forces stormed Iraq, one of the few sources on the Iraqi viewpoint was a blog written by a person who turned out to be 29-year-old Iraqi architect Salam Pax, though it's not certain that is his real name.
Some reporters followed his blog daily, which gave gritty insights into how the war was shaking the lives of Iraqis.
The U.S. military never publicly acknowledged Pax, but people at the conference say they believe U.S. military officers read the blog.
Some news organizations valued the blog. Britain's Guardian newspaper was so impressed that it hired Pax in May 2003 to write a biweekly column on life in Baghdad. He's still writing it.
Blogs last year also provided information during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. In China, where the SARS outbreak began, the government at first said little. But health officials and reporters were able to get a sense of what was happening through blogs, as well as from e-mail and cell phone text messages sent to people outside China. This might have spurred China's blog crackdown.
Gill says blogs are a good way to uncover news that regular media aren't covering or can't cover. "Blogs may be the best and only channel for such news stories," Gill said.