5 thieves, 5 cities, 12 hours: Can Twitter catch them?

The State Department is challenging John Q. Public to track down — by using Twitter and other social media and online tools — five fictional international jewel thieves — and win $5,000 if you catch them first.

Dubbed the Tag Challenge, the fun kicks off March 31, when photos of the thieves and a brief description of each are posted online.

In the game, the thieves have stolen the world’s third most valuable diamond and are on the loose in five different locales: Washington, New York, London, Stockholm and Bratislava, Slovakia. The challenge: locate the suspect; photograph him or her; and upload the photo. The first person to upload all five photos wins. And to win the prize, you have to do it in 12 hours.

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This is no parlor game, though: The goal is to demonstrate how well social networks, through sharing and spreading information, can uncover information.

“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,” Marion Bowman, former deputy director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive and a senior research fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, said in an announcement.

The competition was organized by graduate students in six countries and is sponsored by the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Prague, and the Institute for International Education. It was created in part by a graduate student at George Washington University, J.R. deLara, who devised it to test the viability of using social media to catch criminals and obtain intelligence information, Wired reported

The contest will start at 8 a.m. local time in each of the five cities, when the mug shots of each suspect will be posted, and run until 8 p.m. The suspects are volunteers who will be on the move during the day, traveling predetermined routes that could include riding public transportation, going to coffee shops or visiting parks, according to the contest’s website. Contestant must use only the mug shot and other information provided by the contest website to identify the suspects.

"This experiment could give us new insights on tracking terrorists and finding missing children,” Gary Anderson, who served as the first Director of the Marine Corps' Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities and then directed the National Center for Unconventional Thought at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, said in the announcement.

At first blush, this might seen as something of a mission impossible — deLara told Wired he doesn’t know how teams will manage their searches — but the unlikely has happened before.

The contest was inspired by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s 2009 DARPA Network Challenge, in which contestant were told to use the Internet to locate 10 large red weather balloons scattered across the continental United States. At the time, some U.S. intelligence professionals didn’t think it could be done, because of the number of possible locations for the balloons. But a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the balloons in a matter of hours and won the $40,000 prize.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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