Security officials to spy on chat rooms

CIA is quietly funding research into surveillance of chat rooms to help identify terrorists, has learned.

The CIA is quietly funding federal research into surveillance of Internet chat rooms as part of an effort to identify possible terrorists, newly released documents reveal.

In April 2003, the CIA agreed to fund a series of research projects that the documents indicate were intended to create "new capabilities to combat terrorism through advanced technology." One of those projects is research at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., devoted to automated monitoring and profiling of the behavior of chat-room users.

Listening in
The CIA has been working behind the scenes for a number of months to help develop technology for monitoring chat on the Internet. A real-world test starts with the New Year.

• November 2002: Invitation-only workshop convened by CIA and NSF on antiterrorism research.

• April 2003: CIA and NSF sign "memorandum of understanding" to fund technology research.

• June 2004: Deadline for submitting research proposals to NSF.

• July 2004: CIA and NSF review nearly 250 research proposals.

• January 2005: Scheduled start date of chat room monitoring project at Rensselaer Polytechnic.

Even though the money ostensibly comes from the National Science Foundation, CIA officials were involved in selecting recipients for the research grants, according to a contract between the two agencies obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and reviewed by CNET

NSF program director Leland Jameson said Wednesday the two-year agreement probably will not be renewed for the 2005 fiscal year. "Probably we won't be working with the CIA anymore at all," Jameson said. "I think that people have moved on to other things."

The NSF grant for chat-room surveillance was reported earlier this year, but without disclosure of the CIA's role in the project. The NSF-CIA memorandum of understanding says that while the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the fight against terrorism presented U.S. spy agencies with surveillance challenges, existing spy "capabilities can be significantly enhanced with advanced technology."

EPIC director Marc Rotenberg, whose nonprofit group obtained the documents through the Freedom of Information Act, said the CIA's clandestine involvement was worrisome. "The intelligence community is changing the priorities of scientific research in the U.S.," Rotenberg said. "You have to be careful that the National Science Foundation doesn't become the National Spy Foundation."

"The proposed system could aid the intelligence community to discover hidden communities and communication patterns in chat rooms without human intervention."
--Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute research proposal

A CIA representative would not answer questions, saying the agency's policy is never to talk about funding. The two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers involved, Bulent Yener and Mukkai Krishnamoorthy, did not respond to interview requests.

Their proposal, also disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, received $157,673 from the CIA and NSF. It says: "We propose a system to be deployed in the background of any chat room as a silent listener for eavesdropping...The proposed system could aid the intelligence community to discover hidden communities and communication patterns in chat rooms without human intervention."

Yener and Krishnamoorthy, both associate professors of computer science, wrote that their research would involve writing a program for "silently listening" to an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel and "logging all the messages." One of the oldest and most popular methods

Featured Video

Outcry over iPhone 'Error 53' and bad USB Type-C cables

Be careful when replacing parts. Poorly made cables can fry a laptop, and iPhones will stop working if the Touch ID button is repaired outside of Apple. It's a lesson some are learning the hard way.

by Bridget Carey