Researchers then checked the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group founded to address risks related to weapons of mass destruction, for how many potential weapons-of-mass-destruction sites exist in the city. They found four: one chemical production site, a fertilizer company, an oil refinery and a uranium recovery plant.
To help protect those sites, the researchers culled through Facebook posts and YouTube videos to analyze opposition forces in the area. Their research culminated in a recommendation to talk with one particular Syrian opposition group near the city. Lucente proposed asking the Farouq Battalion, a group of men who fight for the Khalid bin Walid Battalion, to consider watching those four sites in case the Syrian government should fall. As a counterintelligence officer, Lucente is worried that if those locations are not protected, terrorists could theoretically seize them or black marketers could sell the material.
Rob Schroeder and Gregory Freeman, both research assistants at the CORE Lab, helped map and provide data visualization for the project. The DTNA software pulls Arabic and English information, which is already a step beyond much of the available, consumer-facing software that reads public opinion. But researchers say better foreign language use could crack social media analysis wide open.
"The major ridgeline to be crossed is going to be foreign language analysis," Schroeder said.
The project took two months to complete and since then, Lucente, Schroeder and Freeman have been in demand. The group presented the project to senior military leaders, who they've been asked not to name, and say they were interested in the project. Since making the initial presentation, the researchers have been asked to give the same brief more than a dozen times, all to high-ranking military members involved in intelligence and cyberwarfare.
If the Syria project and the Twitter software go on to establish models that the military deems successful, they could bring about a shift in the way U.S. military intelligence is gathered, increasing speed by focusing on publicly available social media streams.
While social media analytics for military applications interests social media data scientists, Internet freedom watchdogs are less quick to praise. They are worried about privacy breaches, even though mining the public information is legal.
"While technically it is legal to pull social media information, I don't know that it's always ethical, " said Eddan Katz, a visiting fellow for Access to Knowledge at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.
Liu, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, said any expectation of privacy by social media users is naive. Raw public data mining is already happening, perfected by corporations eager to learn what consumers think about their products.
"You should expect someone is using it, with a computer system to mine something with it," he said.
Lucente is quick to point out that the project is not a matter of Big Brother spying, since the information is public and the military would not use it on U.S. citizens. Still, knowing projects out there exist that have the capability to do such in-depth analysis makes civil liberties proponents worried.
"There's no telling how it will be used, or stored, and that is something we want to watch," said Gregory Nojeim, the director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Freedom.
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