The US Department of State is sponsoring Tag Challenge, a social gaming contest that was announced today and hopes to reveal insights on how social media and open source data can be used to track terrorists and find missing children.

The contest will have participants use technological and social resources to locate and photograph five “suspects” in five different cities—Washington, D.C., New York City, London, Stockholm, and Bratislava—based only on a picture and a short description of each one. The first person to upload pictures of all five suspects to the Tag Challenge website will earn a cash prize of $5,000 (plus bragging rights).

Along with the US Department of State, Tag Challenge is also sponsored by the US Embassy in Prague and the Institute for International Education. It is part of “an ongoing assessment of the value of social networks as tools for international cooperation and public safety,” according the the press release.

From Marion Bowman, a former Deputy Director in the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy:

It has become increasingly obvious over the past few years that open source information, especially in an age of social networking, can be at least as valuable as classified information.

This attempt to utilize social media data echoes a similar report that we covered last month, in which a job listing revealed that the FBI is planning to rely on Twitter and Facebook for future intel.

While it’s definitely a good idea for the US government to understand how open data sources like Twitter can be tapped into to help make our society safer, the idea of being constantly reviewed by the government on our own turf should make some users feel a bit uncomfortable.

The official goal:

Our goal is to determine whether and how social media can be used to accomplish a realistic, time-sensitive, international law enforcement goal.

It speaks volumes to the fact that any information we make public…really is public. And now technology has come to the point where it is easy to take all of this data and reveal valuable and even sensitive information. Beyond data interpretation, the contest takes an interesting approach by empowering civillians to take action and utilize the same tools that the government someday hopes to use.

Of course, there is a darker side to all of this. Any technology that is built to track someone nefarious can be used to track someone who is innocent. We should never have expected government to not scan social data, information is their lifeblood and we made it public, but for them to weaponize (in a sense) their methods of sorting, makes us slightly leery. After all, the innocent man needs no defense only in a world where all play by the rules. That is not the world we live in. Here’s a tip: cut out the bomb jokes, already.

➤  Tag Challenge