Narus develops a scary sleuth for social media

Narus is developing a new technology that sleuths through billions of pieces of data on social networks and Internet services and connects the dots.

The new program, code-named Hone, is designed to give intelligence and law enforcement agencies a leg up on criminals who are now operating anonymously on the Internet.

In many ways, the cyber world is ideal for subversive and terrorist activities, said Antonio Nucci, chief technology officer with Narus. "For bad people, it's an easy place to hide," Nucci said. "They can get lost and very easily hide behind a massive ocean of legal digital transactions."

It's trivial to set up a Gmail or Facebook account under a fake name. The question for law enforcement then becomes, how does it connect different pieces of information to the same person? "It's very hard to connect these two pieces of information," Nucci said. "We're really asking [law enforcement] to become almost like magicians."

Narus is best known as the creator of NarusInsight, an network monitoring device that can analyze traffic on IP networks. AT&T allegedly used a Narus system to wiretap customer data on behalf of the U.S. National Security Agency as part of a U.S. domestic terrorist surveillance program.

Hone works in tandem with NarusInsight. By Nucci's own admission, however, it can do some pretty "scary" things.

The software's user creates a target profile, and Hone then proceeds to link what Nucci calls "islands of information." Hone can analyze VOIP conversations, biometrically identify someone's voice or photograph and then associate it with different phone numbers.

"I can have a sample of your voice in English, and you can start speaking Mandarin tomorrow. It doesn't matter; I'm going to catch you."

It uses artificial intelligence to analyze e-mails and can link mails to different accounts, doing what Nucci calls topical analysis. "It's going to go through a set of documents and automatically it's going to organize them in topics -- I'm not talking about keywords as is done today, I'm talking about topics," he said.

That can't be done with today's technology, he said. "If you search for fertilizers on Google... it's going to come back with 6.5 million pages. Enjoy," he said. "If you want to search for non-farmers who are discussing fertilizer... it's not even searchable."

Hone will sift through millions of profiles searching for people with similar attributes -- blogger profiles that share the same e-mail address, for example. It can look for statistically likely matches, by studying things like the gender, nationality, age, location, home and work addresses of people.

Another component can trace the location of someone using a mobile device such as a laptop or phone.

Bit by bit, it pieces together the subject's different identities on the Internet.

Narus is still testing the waters with Hone. Working with a consortium of universities, the company has used Hone to sift through massive amounts of public information. "We started to collect data three years ago and we've gone through several programs," Nucci said. "We have something like 75 million users in our system." With the permission of users, Nucci's team also analyzed data on about 50,000 private profiles.

Nucci will discuss Hone at the RSA Conference in San Francisco Friday.

The company is now talking to potential customers such as defense contractors and government agencies to see if there's enough interest to turn Hone into a product. "If the market is as big as we guess it's going to be, then we will start rolling this into products," Nucci said.

That day could be just a year away, he added.

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