Pentagon Studies Blogs as Terror-Fighting Tool

The Defense Department is seeking to create a powerful and sophisticated new weapon to help win the Global War on Terror -- a blog search engine. "We're out to make a machine that will analyze blogs in real time," says Dr. Brian E. Ulicny, a senior scientist for the defense contractor charged with development of the new terror-fighting tool.

Can blogs really help "information analysts and warfighters" combat terrorism? The Air Force Office of Scientific Research is betting nearly half a million dollars that the answer is "Sir, yes, sir!"

The money will go to a Massachusetts firm called Versatile Information Systems Inc., to pay for a three-year project entitled "Automated Ontologically Based Link Analysis of International Web Logs for the Timely Discovery of Relevant and Credible Information."

In plainer English, that translates into the creation of a "topic-specific blog search and analytic tool that will apply novel metrics" to analyze links and patterns within the blogosphere, according to Ulicny. Those patterns include the content of blogs as well as hyperlinks contained within them. "The focus will be on those that are part of the national security and foreign relations domain," Ulicny explains. "After all, the Air Force is not particularly interested in blog postings about Lindsay Lohan.

"It can be challenging for information analysts to tell what's important in blogs unless you analyze patterns," says Ulicny. "Link/citation analysis works great in classic information retrieval, but blogs function in another way." One of the problems analysts have with blog monitoring, he says, is that there is too much "actionable information" to analyze properly. Therefore, says Ulicny, "We are developing an automated tool to tell analysts what bloggers are most interested in at a point in time."

Major Amy Magnus, project manager for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which is funding the effort, says bloggers are "very interesting to us" because they are seen as "experts in their fields" who lead "a community of people in rich discussion within a narrow field."

As Major Magnus points out, however, "some bloggers are credible and some are not." (Matt Drudge and Michelle Malkin, are you listening?) "A big part of the game is to figure out who is credible," she says. "What news can you trust?" Another area of concern is that of "actionable information," says Magnus. "How to define it is a big issue."

While cautioning that she is part of a "basic research organization," Magnus admits, "We definitely want to use this to monitor Islamic blogs. It's important to understand other cultures, and blogs give insight into them. Blogs provide a real service by taking loosely linked information and giving it focus and a means of reaching consensus.

"The blogosphere is a really powerful medium," Magnus concludes. "Bloggers invoke a kind of discipline among their kind, which we see as a parallel to what we call an 'advocacy chain' in which everyone from a general to a private can feel comfortable."

But should the rest of us feel comfortable with this powerful new search engine cum terror-fighting weapon in the hands of the Pentagon? After all, in the wake of recent terror bombings in Mumbai, the Indian government directed local internet service providers to block access to websites that host blogs. Leading bloggers promptly accused the government of creating a dangerous precedent of censorship. Indian authorities cited "security reasons" and "anti-national sentiments" when asked to explain why the sites had been jammed, but some analysts speculated that certain blogs could be used by terrorists to coordinate operations.

Recent revelations about warrantless wiretapping and other forms of possibly illegal and unconstitutional spying and snooping by our own government hardly inspire confidence -- but both Ulicny and Magnus say there is no need to worry.

"Blogs are all open source and published to the whole world," says Ulicny. "So there's no reasonable expectation or sense of privacy. Also, we're not looking to use this tool to censor but to get some of people's reactions to news in the national security and foreign affairs domain. Our focus is not domestic, but instead on bloggers hailing from or posting about international areas."

"There is some concern in the blogosphere about what we are looking at," concedes Major Magnus. "But this is definitely not about censorship of any type. I believe very strongly in diversity of opinion and rich discourse. That's what makes the blogosphere so important in the first place."

Their words are reassuring, but in the face of continuing attacks such as the recent train bombings in Mumbai, the potential for abuse of the "iBlog project" (as Ulicny informally refers to it) remains strong, and continuing vigilance will be required. After all, as Versatile Information Systems' head Mitch Kokar notes, "The fact that the web is a vast source of information is sometimes overlooked by military analysts. Our research goal is to provide the warfighter with a kind of information radar to better understand the information battlespace." Should Donald Rumsfeld ever conclude that censoring blogs -- instead of merely monitoring them -- is necessary to combating terror within the "information battlespace," what do you think will happen?

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