Amid the torrent of jabber in internet chat rooms -- flirting by QTpie and BoogieBoy, arguments about politics and horror flicks -- are terrorists plotting their next move?
The government certainly isn't discounting the possibility. It's taking the idea seriously enough to fund a yearlong study on chat room surveillance under an anti-terrorism program.
Today's the Day. A Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute computer science professor hopes to develop mathematical models that can uncover structure within the scattershot traffic of online public forums.
Chat rooms are the highly popular and freewheeling areas on the internet where people with self-created nicknames discuss just about anything: teachers, Kafka, cute boys, politics, love, root canals. They are also places where malicious hackers have been known to trade software tools, stolen passwords and credit card numbers. The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates 28 million Americans have visited internet chat rooms.
Trying to monitor the sea of traffic on all the chat channels would be like assigning a police officer to listen in on every conversation on the sidewalk -- virtually impossible.
Instead of rummaging through megabytes of messages, RPI professor Bulent Yener will use mathematical models in search of patterns in the chatter. Downloading data from selected chat rooms, Yener will track the times that messages were sent, creating a statistical profile of the traffic.
If, for instance, RatBoi and bowler1 consistently send messages within seconds of each other in a crowded chat room, you could infer that they were speaking to one another amid the "noise" of the chat room.
"For us, the challenge is to be able to determine, without reading the messages, who is talking to whom," Yener said. In search of "hidden communities," Yener also wants to check messages for certain keywords that could reveal something about what's being discussed in groups.
The $157,673 grant comes from the National Science Foundation's Approaches to Combat Terrorism program. It was selected in coordination with the nation's intelligence agencies.
The NSF's Leland Jameson said the foundation judged the proposal strictly on its broader scientific merit, leaving it to the intelligence community to determine its national security value. Neither the CIA nor the FBI would comment on the grant, with a CIA spokeswoman citing the confidentiality of sources and methods.
Security officials know al-Qaida and other terrorist groups use the internet for everything from propaganda to offering tips on kidnapping. But it's not clear if terrorists rely much on chat rooms for planning and coordination.