DARPA, the branch of the military that researches new tools of defense, is looking for a contractor to build them a new tool in the fight against terrorism. It isn’t a new super weapon, but rather something that concerns those of us who frequent social media.
In a call for contractors, DARPA lists their newest project as “Forecasting Dynamic Group Behavior in Social Media.” In essence, the military wants a tool that can automatically comb through social networks to predict terrorism. They believe that terrorists are using sites like Facebook as recruiting tools.
Here’s how DARPA wants the development of the system to progress:
Task 1: Design and prove the feasibility of a system that can track groups and their state changes in social media.
Task 2: Research key indicators of group interactions, including competition, recruitment activities, and effects of events and topics on group structure changes.
Task 1: Design and develop a system that learns dynamics of group behavior and inter- and intra-group interactions in an unsupervised manner based upon design and innovation developed in Phase I.
Task 2: Demonstrate the system on a social media dataset containing >1K groups, >100K postings/day, and >1M members. Achieve high accuracy (90%) of detecting group state changes, activities, conflicts, and competitions.
PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: Successful development of the prototype capability would be of great interest to industrial espionage prevention specialists, law enforcement, market analysts, and polling organizations. This capability would be applicable to a broad range of tactical as well as strategic military operations.
At the moment, this is just a proposal. The applications for stopping terrorism and law enforcement would certainly meet with backlast, but it makes sense. There are some groups who have used social media to recruit and predicting movement via social media would give the military an advantage.
The part that should have you concerned is the non-military applications. DARPA lists “market analysts and polling organizations” as two potential areas the technology could be applied. It’s no secret that a lot of our modern inventions were created for the military first, but this is one of those proposed invention that shouldn’t be put in the hands of civilian agencies without certain assurances.
Companies like Google already track certain behavior and tailor ads towards you. Marketers would pay millions for technology that could detect even the slightest change of behavior in your social media or other online activity. All-encompassing knowledge of your behavior in social media should be between you and your friends – not a lifeless computer that converts human interaction into a spreadsheet.
I have no doubt in my mind that such an application could be used for the safety and protection of innocent civilians. There is a need for better detection of crime, but there’s no need to put the privacy of citizens at risk at the same time.
The FBI had already looked into obtaining the tools to tap into social media early this year. The difference between the FBI’s proposition and this is that DARPA is only wanting to look on the outside at patterns and learn from them. The FBI wanted to essentially wiretap your online communications. Both are unsettling in their own right, but I’ll take the DARPA plan over the FBI’s any day.