Working from the premise that aggregated social trends information — all that data that can be tracked by monitoring social media pages, cell phone text data, traffic cams and other generally available data — can be used to predict future events, the government is looking for academicians and corporations to help them make this happen.

All of this reads a little like the premise of CBS’ television series, “Person of Interest.” Build a computer to analyze all available data on people, and then use it to predict behavior and let the government wheel into action to stop or alter it.

Apparently it’s not just fiction or entertaining television. According to the New York Times, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, plans to start a three-year project in April 2012 to do just that.

IARPA officials won’t discuss the research, but according to the Times the project will use publically available data and focus on communication, movement and consumption patterns.

The goal, according to the Times, is “to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.”

A quick look at the IARPA website gives a glimpse at what is going on. “The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) invests in high-risk/high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries.” It adds that the program is about “taking real risk.”

There are three program offices:
1. Smart Collection, with a mandate to “improve the value of collected data from all sources”;
2. Inclusive Analysis, with a mandate to “maximize insight from the information we collect in a timely fashion; and
3. Safe & Secure Operations, with a directive “to counter new capabilities implemented by our adversaries that would threaten our ability to operate freely and effectively in a networked world.”

The International Business Times reported that the program “will aim to develop methods that ‘beat the news’ by fusing early indicators of events from multiple data sources and types.”

Already, Twitter data is being used to predict the box office success of movies and along with Facebook information, to access earthquake damage as it is happening, according to the Times.

Scared? Nervous? Scientists and privacy advocates are nervous. David Price, an anthropologist, told the Times, “I have Total Information Awareness flashbacks when things like this happen. On the one hand it’s understandable for a nation-state to want to track things like the outbreak of a pandemic, but I have to wonder about the total automation of this and what productive will come of it.”