U.S. Spies on Chat Rooms Associated
Press 02:02 PM Oct. 11, 2004 PT
TROY, N.Y. -- Amid the torrent of
jabber in internet chat rooms -- flirting by QTpie and BoogieBoy, arguments
about politics and horror flicks -- are terrorists plotting their next
The government certainly isn't discounting the possibility. It's
taking the idea seriously enough to fund a yearlong study on chat room
surveillance under an anti-terrorism program.
A Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute computer science professor hopes to develop mathematical models
that can uncover structure within the scattershot traffic of online public
Chat rooms are the highly popular and freewheeling areas on the
internet where people with self-created nicknames discuss just about
anything: teachers, Kafka, cute boys, politics, love, root canals. They are
also places where malicious hackers have been known to trade software
tools, stolen passwords and credit card numbers. The Pew Internet &
American Life Project estimates 28 million Americans have visited internet
chat rooms. Trying to monitor the sea of traffic on all the chat channels
would be like assigning a police officer to listen in on every conversation
on the sidewalk -- virtually impossible.
Instead of rummaging through
megabytes of messages, RPI professor Bulent Yener will use mathematical
models in search of patterns in the chatter. Downloading data from selected
chat rooms, Yener will track the times that messages were sent, creating a
statistical profile of the traffic. If, for instance, RatBoi and bowler1
consistently send messages within seconds of each other in a crowded chat
room, you could infer that they were speaking to one another amid the "noise"
of the chat room.
"For us, the challenge is to be able to determine,
without reading the messages, who is talking to whom," Yener said. In search
of "hidden communities," Yener also wants to check messages for certain
keywords that could reveal something about what's being discussed in
groups. The $157,673 grant comes from the National Science Foundation's
Approaches to Combat Terrorism program. It was selected in coordination with
the nation's intelligence agencies.
The NSF's Leland Jameson said the
foundation judged the proposal strictly on its broader scientific merit,
leaving it to the intelligence community to determine its national security
value. Neither the CIA nor the FBI would comment on the grant, with a CIA
spokeswoman citing the confidentiality of sources and
Security officials know al-Qaida and other terrorist groups use
the internet for everything from propaganda to offering tips on kidnapping.
But it's not clear if terrorists rely much on chat rooms for planning and
coordination. Michael Vatis, founding director of the National Infrastructure
Protection Center and now a consultant, said he had heard of terrorists using
chat rooms, which he said offer some security as long as code phrases are
used. Other cybersecurity experts doubted chat rooms' usefulness to
terrorists given the other current options, from web mail to hiding messages
on designated web pages that can only be seen by those who know where to
look. "In a world in which you can embed your message in a pixel on a picture
on a homepage about tea cozies, I don't know whether if you're any better if
you think chat would be any particular magnet," Jonathan Zittrain, an
Internet scholar at Harvard Law School.
Because they are focusing on
public chat rooms, authorities are not violating constitutional rights to
privacy when they keep an eye on the traffic, experts said. Law enforcement
agents have trolled chat rooms for years in search of pedophiles, sometimes
adopting profiles making it look like they are young teens.
idea of the government reviewing massive amounts of public communications
still raises some concerns.
Mark Rasch, a former head of the Justice
Department's computer crimes unit, said such a system would bring the country
one step closer to the Pentagon's much-maligned Terrorism Information
Awareness program. Research on that massive data-mining project was halted
after an uproar over its impact on privacy. "It's the ability to gather and
analyze massive amounts of data that creates the privacy problem," Rasch
said, "even though no individual bit of data is particularly
Think about this.. Your children are in a main stream
chat room like Paltalk, MSN, or Yahoo Messenger chatting with friends. The Government
sees their comments as a threat to national security. They aren't aware it's
just a 12 year old kid acting like a punk, or joking with his friends, or even
playing an online game. Truth is, they don't really care. Thanks to the new
Act, they can now break down your door in
the middle of the night, confiscate all your computers, rifle through all your
belongings WITHOUT A SEARCH WARRANT! And they can take you off to jail, and
your children to juveniel facilities and hold you all indefintely WITHOUT LEGAL
COUNSEL and WITHOUT CHARGING YOU with a crime if they feel like it..
Still... some people trust big government and believe
the prophecies a joke?
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