By Jared Kennedy
In the last decade terrorist organizations expanded well beyond borders and physical boundaries.
Groups like the so-called Islamic State have taken to cyber space for recruitment and propaganda, vastly increasing the breadth of their destruction.
Since 2008, the University of Nebraska at Omaha has hosted a research project aimed at data tracking these organizations. The research includes downloading terrorist organizations’ tweets and information put on their websites.
Sam Church is one of the main computer scientists working on the project. He says so far there have been at least 2,000,000 tweets saved and more than 16,000 accounts analyzed.
“I built a system that tries to identify ISIS accounts,” Church said. “It uses Anonymous (the hacker group). They have an operation trying to take down ISIS.”
Anonymous is an international cyber group with no direct mission or statement. The group is famous for several of its hacking stunts. One of their most notable hacks was performed on Sony. Among other things the group released emails and information about Sony executives. This resulted in Sony’s latest flick, “The Interview”, being pulled from theaters.
The group isn’t all bad though. Church said Anonymous releases account names of individuals involved in ISIS with the intention of getting those accounts banned and shut down.
“I then hop in the middle, get those accounts and download all the data before it’s banned so we can analyze it,” Church said.
Professor Douglas Derrick says this project is an outgrowth from a stream of projects.
“The point of this research is to understand online influence and how organizations that have asymmetries of power use open architectures to facilitate influence and reach,” Derrick said.
Church says he uses the Tor network for all the research. Tor is a software enabling anonymous communication on the internet. Some may remember this software in its earlier form, The Onion Router. Church uses the Tor network in order to stay safe from the terrorist groups.
“The only traffic that should be visible is us (the researchers) interacting with twitter,” Church said. “I feel safe knowing Twitter has that data, I don’t feel they are compromised.”
Church says the research expands farther than just ISIS.
“We study violent extremist organizations. I don’t know if ISIS is necessarily our biggest,” Church said.
“Statistically there have been more deaths in the united states by the far right movement [such as the Ku-Klux-Klan] than by foreign terrorists since 9-11.”
The research is done from a business standpoint. Church said investigating how they collaborate from across boarders is fascinating.
“We’re not defense investigation. We’re neutral,” Church said. “I feel pretty secure. The only contact we’ve had [as a result of the project] is from our own government.
Derrick says the research is funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s START program (Studies of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism).
As for how long the research will continue Derrick says there is no such thing as done.
Church says 74 percent of the data is in Arabic, and they are working on getting professional translators to come in and help work through it.
“Understanding how technology interacts with mechanisms of influence is on-going research,” Derrick said.
“It is likely that at some future point this will not be as fruitful of a dataset, but I expect that research into this area will continue.”