[ISN] CIA funds chatroom surveillance

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Fri Nov 26 01:16:03 EST 2004


Declan McCullagh
CNET News.com
November 25, 2004

The CIA is quietly funding federal research into surveillance of
Internet chatrooms as part of an effort to identify possible
terrorists, newly released documents reveal.

In April 2003, the CIA agreed to fund a series of research projects
that the documents indicate were intended to create "new capabilities
to combat terrorism through advanced technology". One of those
projects is research at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy,
N.Y., devoted to automated monitoring and profiling of the behaviour
of chatroom users.

Even though the money ostensibly comes from the National Science
Foundation, CIA officials were involved in selecting recipients for
the research grants, according to a contract between the two agencies
obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and
reviewed by ZDNet UK sister site CNET News.com.

NSF programme director Leland Jameson said on Wednesday the two-year
agreement probably will not be renewed for the 2005 fiscal year.  
"Probably we won't be working with the CIA anymore at all," Jameson
said. "I think that people have moved on to other things."

The NSF grant for chatroom surveillance was reported earlier this
year, but without disclosure of the CIA's role in the project. The
NSF-CIA memorandum of understanding says that while the 11 September,
2001 attacks and the fight against terrorism presented US spy agencies
with surveillance challenges, existing spy "capabilities can be
significantly enhanced with advanced technology".

EPIC director Marc Rotenberg, whose nonprofit group obtained the
documents through the Freedom of Information Act, said the CIA's
clandestine involvement was worrisome. "The intelligence community is
changing the priorities of scientific research in the US," Rotenberg
said. "You have to be careful that the National Science Foundation
doesn't become the National Spy Foundation."

A CIA representative would not answer questions, saying the agency's
policy is never to talk about funding. The two Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute researchers involved, Bulent Yener and Mukkai
Krishnamoorthy, did not respond to interview requests.

Their proposal, also disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act,
received $157,673 from the CIA and NSF. It says: "We propose a system
to be deployed in the background of any chatroom as a silent listener
for eavesdropping... The proposed system could aid the intelligence
community to discover hidden communities and communication patterns in
chatrooms without human intervention."

Yener and Krishnamoorthy, both associate professors of computer
science, wrote that their research would involve writing a program for
"silently listening" to an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel and
"logging all the messages". One of the oldest and most popular methods
for chatting online, IRC attracts hundreds of thousands of users every
day. A history written by IRC creator Jarkko Oikarinen said the
concept grew out of chat technology for modem-based bulletin boards in
the 1980s.

The Yener and Krishnamoorthy proposal says their research will begin 1
January, 2005 but does not say which IRC servers will be monitored.

A June 2004 paper they published, also funded by the NSF, described a
project that quietly monitored users of the popular Undernet network,
which has about 144,000 users and 50,000 channels. In the paper, Yener
and Krishnamoorthy predicted their work "could aid [the] intelligence
community to eavesdrop in chatrooms, profile chatters and identify
hidden groups of chatters in a cost-effective way" and that their
future research will focus on identifying "topic-based information."

Al Teich, director of science and policy programmes at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, said he does not object to
the CIA funding terrorism-related research in general.

"I don't know about chatroom surveillance, but doing research on
issues related to terrorism is certainly legitimate," Teich said.  
"Whether the CIA ought to be funding research in universities in a
clandestine manner is a different issue."

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