CIA behind Research to Spy on Chat Rooms

Fri Nov 26th, 2004 at 17:34:39 EDT
With the conditioning behind us sufficient to make permanent installation of Cheney's favorite fear-reflex, we are properly prepared to receive and accept CNET's report that The CIA is quietly funding federal research into surveillance of Internet chat rooms as part of an effort to identify possible terrorists, newly released documents reveal.

Americans consider that terrorism is a real threat although some may question whether we are addressing that threat appropriately, for example, in evoking the insurgent-occupation reflex. Some even think it's possible we've given him just The War Bin Laden Wanted. But, that digital communications were part of the 9/11 plot created an impetus that our spies should monitor the internet and its related channels for terror operations.

Ok, maybe our spies should do more than twiddle thumbs in order to possibly forestall another 911 as Patriot Act I supposes, notwithstanding (?!?) legitimate concerns of civil libertarians.
How does an open society such as our own foster the goal of anticipating secret terrorist plans?
Through research, first, as to how to accomplish that goal technically. The Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at NSF solicited research in this area via proposals for (PDF:) Approaches to Combat Terrorism (ACT).

Yes, that makes sense and it apparently produced efforts considered worthy of funding. In fact, one successful effort at RPI had earlier established (PDF file) automated techniques for eavesdropping and profiling Internet chatrooms indeed showed statistical differences among the profiled users of the Undernet system such that distinct groups could be discovered and monitored. That work seems to be the basis of their subsequent NSF award for Surveillance, Analysis and Modeling of Chatroom Communities set to begin Jan. 1, 2005.
So, these researchers are on their way to modelling systems for automated spying techniques. But how does that research get handed off to those who'd use it?

Well, oddly enough perhaps, by an obscured collaboration with the CIA to fund the effort from the start. The Electronic Privacy Information Center recently received results of an FOIA request in the form of a CIA-NSF (PDF:) Memorandum of Understanding detailing the Intelligence Community/NSF cooperative funding of such research through FY 2004. It included the intent to continue the agreement beyond that period. The CIA's input was not itemized although NSF involvement was presented at 70%.

You might think that some would be troubled with the requirement for an FOIA request to bring to light this type of collaboration between our premier foreign intelligence agency and our top scientific organization. But it should be remembered that the agency's mission under the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 is to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense. So supporting spy work seems a natural in context of that priority. But you'd also still be right that such efforts are unsettling to, eg., top Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, 16 of whom recently publicized their concerns in an open letter:

October 16, 2004

We write as former recipients of the CPSR Norbert Wiener Award to express our concern about the significant redirection in science funding toward the development of systems of mass surveillance. It is our view that this research priority could pose a fundamental risk to political freedom, privacy, and Constitutional liberty.


Unlike techniques that identify dangerous substances, techniques of surveillance enable identification of virtually any subject. The result is invariably that research that is pursued for the narrow purpose of fighting terrorism, over time, takes on any other objectives. This is already apparent in such areas as passenger profiling, video surveillance, and network analysis.

Left unchecked, the consequence of this development could be the adoption of systems of mass surveillance unrelated to any terrorist threats. This will give the government sweeping new capability to monitor private life and thus diminish the freedom and liberty of Americans.


We call on the National Science Foundation, DARPA, the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant agencies to determine whether adequate safeguards are being developed to protect the civil rights of the populations who will ultimately become the human subjects for the deployment of these systems.

We call on the Congress to set aside funds to allow for a candid and independent assessment of the ethical, legal, and social implications of this technology.

The American public has repeatedly made clear that it does not support the establishment of vast systems of public surveillance. Yet our science agencies and many of our top researches are now pursuing precisely this mission.

We believe this must change.


Ok, so we note the need to revise our approach to national security issues. We also note the potential impact on social and civil liberties. And we also observe that there may be business opportunties presented in addressing the threat of terrorism: what's good for America's gotta be good for busines, right?

Personally, I think that such research is long-overdue. We need technologies to monitor as many open channels as possible...Of course, I'm speaking as the former CTO of a company that developed similar spy-technology.

-- Simson Garfinkel

...wait, did I get that phrasing correct!?

Certainly it's understandable that the US might take new approaches to securing the safety of our nation: 911 did happen! At another level, however, the breadth of Patriot Acts I and II, the intense secrecy of the Bush Administration, a willingness of the majority of our emboldened GOP leadership to overturn their own ethical and legal constraints, recent politically-inspired changes at the CIA, and a large variety of other issues on the record are among factors that undermine the confidence I once might have had in the CIA's more recent memo assuring
As far as what we do with the technology -- we have thorough oversight by the US Congress and we strictly follow all applicable laws.
As we continue to exercise the product of Uncle Dick's sustained fear-response conditioning program, I'm sure we'll look back wisely should we embrace EPIC director, Marc Rosenberg's, caution that
the CIA's clandestine involvement was worrisome. "The intelligence community is changing the priorities of scientific research in the U.S.," Rotenberg said. "You have to be careful that the National Science Foundation doesn't become the National Spy Foundation."
While you're considering this issue, I'd recommend a look at what the geeks are saying about CIA Researching Automated IRC Spying. And EPIC's analysis of the USA Patriot Act is worth considering here also.


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