The Investigators

Apr 29, 2011 11:18 AM

UA researchers track terrorists on the "Dark Web"

TUCSON - The war on terror is being fought in cyberspace, from right here in Tucson.

Five years ago, we showed you a project called the "Dark Web." It's a cyber-battle station based at the University of Arizona. News 4 investigators revisited the place where computer scientists gather information about terrorists, from many of the same places on the web you use every day.

Most people engage in social media to communicate, and perhaps meet new people. Terrorists also use social media, but to breed anger and hatred, recruit Jihadists, and plot the unthinkable. Experts say there are thousands of them out there, right now.

"You have that many people engage in discussion, they reveal their opinions, their sentiment, their anger, their displease using their own language and in their own context," says Dr. Hsinchun Chen, UA professor and founder of Dark Web.

He's developed sophisticated cyber-tools that allow his researchers to sift through the millions of daily posts and chats by suspected Jihadists on social media.
Dr. Chen's team of researchers slice and dice words, videos and data to create intricate maps, and get inside the most likely potential terrorist ties. These cyber-relationships resemble balls of yarn, or spider webs - each thread a tie to a potential terrorist, or terror plot.

"They try to entice and educate the audience, so it has ranged from text, video of violent content, IED's - improvised explosive devices, how they put in the right place," Dr. Chen says.

Just a few years, most of Dr. Chen's work was focused on investigating relatively static websites with terrorist ties. But like most of us, terror groups have discovered the fast and fluid pipelines of social media, to spread their vitriol and hatred.

"And that's the kind of tool that they are familiar with, and they get easily excited and radicalized in the process of doing that cyber-community," Dr. Chen says.
He says the material gathered by his staff is shared with some 300 military and intelligence analysts, who work to identify and stop threats to the U.S.

But he says more work needs to be done to cut off or restrict the cyber-pipelines that turn some into radicals.
"They are more volatile, they are more creative, they are more mature, and they are reaching a bigger audience than before," Dr. Chen says.

On the day we visited the Dark Web team, the program was tracking 15 million messages, sent by a quarter-million users in five different languages.


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