Saturday, November 10, 2012

US Military To Fight Wars With Twitter

Students and researchers work inside a lab at the Naval Postgraduate School's Defense Analysis department. Image credit: IDG News Service/Kerry Davis

By Kerry Davis,
Courtesy Of "IT World"

Students at a U.S. military graduate school in California are mining social media with new methods that may change the way the armed forces collect intelligence overseas.
Students and researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School have tackled two projects that could begin the shift in the way intelligence is gathered.

The first is a piece of software they wrote that harnesses the Twitter API (application programming interface) and the second is a project focusing on Syria that uses many social networks to look at U.S. policy options there, though civil liberties experts say the technology concerns them.
The software for Twitter, called the Dynamic Twitter Network Analysis (DTNA), is now being field-tested by three Defense Department units overseas to help gauge public opinion in some of the world's hot spots.
The software pulls in data from the public Twitter feed, then sorts it, live, by phrases, keywords or hashtags. The program is continuously updated, integrating a mapping feature and geo-tagged information. Intelligence officers could use DTNA to understand people's moods about a topic, or hopefully prevent or simply respond faster in any future U.S. embassy attacks.
The group's second project incorporates the DTNA software but also pulls in public information from Facebook, YouTube, Google and other sources to protect potential weapon-of-mass-destruction sites in Syria while the conflict there continues.

The methodology Lucente and researchers are using is called sentiment analysis. It's been around for about 10 years, used primarily by consumer-facing companies to pull public information on social media streams and analyze it for trends. But this is the first known use of sentiment analysis by the military.
"In the commercial world, everyone is doing it," said Bing Liu, a computer science professor who works on sentiment analysis and data mining at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I'm not aware of work in the military. But I'm sure they're using it."
So he's designed the Syria project to harness real-time social media streams as a test for the sort of fast intelligence gathering he'd like to do. Lucente's project started out broadly by researching use of social media in Syria. He found that, rather than the Assad regime, opposition forces are most active online.
Researchers were aided by the fact that Syrian opposition forces have to rely on social media to get the word out on their activities, since they are not traditionally funded. That means there is a wealth of information on public Facebook groups and Twitter profiles, including photos and videos, all ripe for analysis.
What opposition forces have is a massive online presence, detailing their every move. The "Syrian Revolution 2011" Facebook page has more than 647,000 likes. The affiliated Twitter handle, where attacks, death tolls and sometimes troop movements are routinely broadcast, has more than 78,000 followers.
Lucente says high-ranking U.S. military officials are surprised when he points out the extreme wealth of online information available on Syria. The most stunning thing to him is a Google map, updated every 24 hours by revolution forces, which he says would take roughly 100 U.S. intelligence officers to be able to update at the same pace using traditional methods. The map is scattered with pins, many of which have videos associated with air strikes, ground movement and other details, every day. (Take a look at the map yourself, found here.)
With the Syrian opposition activities targeted for sheer wealth of information for the project, Lucente narrowed the scope of his project to ask which areas of the country are most at risk for losing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in the event that Syria's government falls. 
He and two CORE Lab researchers focused on a city called Homs, an important location with a major highway intersection hub. Lucente says it's in a key position for controlling the rest of the country because whichever group holds Homs controls the highways. Syrian websites that track deaths, like, say that the Homs Province has the highest number of casualties.
Researchers then checked the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group founded to address risks related to weapons of mass destruction, for how many potential weapons-of-mass-destruction sites exist in the city. They found four: one chemical production site, a fertilizer company, an oil refinery and a uranium recovery plant.
To help protect those sites, the researchers culled through Facebook posts and YouTube videos to analyze opposition forces in the area. Their research culminated in a recommendation to talk with one particular Syrian opposition group near the city. Lucente proposed asking the Farouq Battalion, a group of men who fight for the Khalid bin Walid Battalion, to consider watching those four sites in case the Syrian government should fall. 
Rob Schroeder and Gregory Freeman, both research assistants at the CORE Lab, helped map and provide data visualization for the project. The DTNA software pulls Arabic and English information, which is already a step beyond much of the available, consumer-facing software that reads public opinion. But researchers say better foreign language use could crack social media analysis wide open.
"The major ridgeline to be crossed is going to be foreign language analysis," Schroeder said.
If the Syria project and the Twitter software go on to establish models that the military deems successful, they could bring about a shift in the way U.S. military intelligence is gathered, increasing speed by focusing on publicly available social media streams.

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