NSA and social networking

TRENDS & TECHNOLOGIES that affect the way government does IT

Last month, New Scientist magazine reported that the National Security Agency was investigating ways to harvest information from social networking Web sites such as Friendster and MySpace. These services allow individuals to describe themselves and link their pages with similar pages created by their friends. NSA suspects it could use the sites to gather personal information and map out networks of associates.

If New Scientist is on the money (it's always hard to tell, what with NSA neither confirming nor denying anything), the spy agency ought to speak with Nasrullah Memon, a Ph.D. student at Aalborg University in Denmark, who has been studying how to evaluate the efficiency of social networks, given social networking data sets. How often do members of a group speak with one another? What conduits do they use? How fast can they jump into action?

Such information could be of use to intelligence agencies, as they focus even harder on loosely organized terrorist groups. Memon presented his findings, software and supporting algorithms at the International Conference on Intelligence and Security Informatics, held recently in San Diego.

Memon's software, called iMiner, designates each individual as a node and then draws lines among these nodes to represent communications. The nodes with the most communication lines are identified as leaders. By doing this, the software in effect maps the organizational structure of a group of people and identifies the leaders. It even estimates how much of a threat the organization could be, given the intensity of its communications.

NSA isn't the only organization interested in the value of social networks. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research awarded Versatile Information Systems Inc. of Framingham, Mass., a $450,000 contract for investigation into 'Automated Ontologically-Based Link Analysis of International Web Logs for the Timely Discovery of Relevant and Credible Information,' as the contract title summarized the work.

'We are developing an automated tool to tell analysts what bloggers are most interested in at a point in time,' said Versatile senior scientist Brian E. Ulicny. By analyzing which blog entries link to which other blog entries, the software numerically gauges factors such as relevance, specificity, timeliness and credibility.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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