CIA Funds Chat Room Eavesdropping Research

Jeff Berg
WASHINGTON — The U.S. intelligence community has been funding extended research into the surveillance of Internet chat rooms, according to government documents unearthed by a privacy advocacy group.

The documents, obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and reviewed by XBiz, detail not only a plan to monitor and identify chat topics and individuals engaged in discussing them, but also the $157,673 grant given to researchers at Troy, N.Y.-based Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“In this work, we consider a fully automated surveillance system for data collection and analysis in Internet chat rooms to discover hidden groups,” reads the proposal written by Dr. Bulent Yener and Dr. Mukkai Krishnamoorthy. “We propose a system to be deployed in the background of any chat room as a silent listener for eavesdropping.”

Yener and Krishnamoorthy both previously worked on research aimed at identifying hidden groups in social networks that examined the structure of Internet chat rooms, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The document goes on to explain the means by which the system would use complex algorithms to monitor “in which chat room topic A is discussed, who is chatting about topic A in chat room X, and is topic A a hot one in chat room X.”

While the research was being conducted in order to identify possible terrorist communication methods and only operates over Internet Relay Chat, the implications of this kind of research are grave, according to a letter written by the recipients of the Norbert Wiener Award from the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

“Left unchecked, the consequence of this development could be the adoption of systems of mass surveillance unrelated to any terrorist threats,” said the recipients. “This will give the government sweeping new capability to monitor private life and thus dimish the freedom and liberty of Americans.”

The letter called on the National Science Foundation, DARPA and the Department of Homeland Security to adopt safeguards to protect the civil rights of citizens, noting that Congress and science agencies had adopted research into the ethical, legal and social implications of emerging technologies in the past.

“There are special risks associated with the development of systems of mass surveillance that must be addressed,” said the recipients. “Unlike techniques that identify dangerous substances, techniques of surveillance enable identification of virtually any subject. The result is invariably that research that is pursued for the narrow purpose of fighting terrorism, over time, takes on many other objectives.”

The research was set to begin on Jan. 1, 2005.

Which IRC servers are going to be monitored were not named.