US intelligence to embrace Semantic Web for surveillance
By Matt Whipp
Posted on 9 Jun 2006 at 17:22
According to the New Scientist, the US authorities may be looking into how they can combine personal data from social networks with data harvested from comms networks to help them with their intelligence work.
A research paper delivered at the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) WWW2006 conference in Edinburgh last month on how to detect conflicts of interest between people based on their participation in social networks was part-funded by a body known as the Advanced Research Development Activity (ARDA).
It turns out that ARDA, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service early this year, has the specific remit of funding research to help 'solve some of the most critical problems facing the US intelligence community' with money from the coffers of the National Security Agency (NSA).
The US authorities are already the centre of a storm of controversy over its access to the phone records of US carriers, with AT&T before a court trying to justify the legality of its wholesale turning over of this information to the NSA.
Yet the information they gather from that level of surveillance is at best topographical: it's simply a means of marking connections between individuals. Even the information they harvest from the Web offers little more than another 'connecting the dots' view of a communications network.
Yet if there was a way of making the kind of information people post on social networks harvestable and meaningful, the intelligence gleaned would reach a whole different level.
Enter the Semantic Web: the overriding theme of the W3C conference and the basis by which the researchers conducted their experiment described in the paper 'Semantic Analytics on Social Networks: Experiences in Addressing the Problem of Conflict of Interest Detection'.
The plan was to map a simple social network Friend of a Friend, where individuals listed their immediate friends, against a commercial bibliographic database of authors computer science papers.
The latter was Semantically tagged, whereby records are attributed additional data describing each record, for example subject, date, author and so on. This means that online information can be meaningful not just to people viewing it, but also to computers accessing that data.
The goal of the research project was to discover whether there were any conflicts of interest between those authors putting forward papers and those chosen to review them. The researchers claimed the project brought out inferences that a simple topographical view would have missed.
And for scientists and researchers, the Semantic Web could change the Web from a morass of disparate pieces of information into a meaningful and searchable index.
And for the intelligence community, the effects could open the door to sophisticated analysis of personal information they currently can only use in the clumsiest of fashions.
Such a system is far from being realised, but the seeds are already germinating.
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