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5/24/2006
11:36 AM
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Terrorist Connections: Find Them Yourself

There's little doubt in my mind the NSA is actively mining huge stores of data and performing social network analysis to produce complex maps of terrorist networks in the hunt for al-Qaida. And if it does it right, it could see some success. It's not like social network analysis of al-Qaida hasn't been done before, even by yours truly (though I admit I don't think I've ever caught a terrorist).

There's little doubt in my mind the NSA is actively mining huge stores of data and performing social network analysis to produce complex maps of terrorist networks in the hunt for al-Qaida. And if it does it right, it could see some success. It's not like social network analysis of al-Qaida hasn't been done before, even by yours truly (though I admit I don't think I've ever caught a terrorist).Interest has been high since soon after 9/11. For one thing, the NSA has a scholarship available specifically for prospective employees studying social network analysis in college. The military and other parts of the government have expressed interest in social network analysis, and the Department of Defense has followed through, with research showing up in its budget. At one point, government researchers even discussed a Department of Pre-Terrorism that would include an office responsible for social network analysis.

The NSA has already done social network analysis and created maps to determine if it's the mullahs or the Ministers who have more influence in Iranian affairs. The U.S. military did an extensive analysis of cousins, cabbies, cabinet members, and assorted creeps to capture Saddam Hussein.

As I mention in my story, social network analysis does anything from finding simple connections between individuals to discovering patterns that might automatically discover terrorist networks by sifting through a seemingly torturous mess of data.

OK, OK, you say, this all sounds interesting, but you said you've done your own social network mapping. What does it look like and how can I be down? Social network analysis programmer Valdis Krebs did some legwork right after Sept. 11 to map out the hijackers' organization. He culled data from news and government documents to put together a map and conclusions, fingering Mohammed Atta as the group's leader, discovering that the members were relatively isolated from one another but more connected to hijackers on their own plan, uncovering a group of people that kept those cells connected, and enabling others to peer into the network's dynamics.

The technology and data at our fingertips is significantly advanced that even you, the ambitious, can develop your own conclusions at trackingthethreat.com. It takes a bit of work, but I was able to connect Osama bin Laden to at least a dozen terrorist operations that have been previously linked to al-Qaida. Here's an example of what you might come up with.

The business world has even poked its nose into the concept. Big consultancies like IBM and data mining companies like SAS are starting to dig into business operations to help companies run more smoothly. One example of how this has already been done--though in this case, it may have been more to company detriment than benefit--is with Enron, which had 1.5 million company e-mails dumped on the Web in 2003. Analysis showed subtle changes in the way the company operated, like hiring an important player, and uncovered some major trends over the course of months of communication.

If you feel like terrorism is too morbid to consume your time, you can also play around with They Rule, which lets you conspiratorially link together the boards of directors of the biggest corporations in the country. For example, did you know that Dick Cheney's Halliburton and Theresa Heinz Kerry's H.J. Heinz are linked via the boards of Walt Disney and Clorox? Spooky.

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