Feds consider searches of terrorism blogs
By Thomas Frank
The effort comes as researchers are seeing terrorists increasingly use the Internet to plan bombings, recruit members and spread propaganda. "Blogging and message boards have played a substantial role in allowing communication among those who would do the United States harm," the department said in a recent notice.
Homeland Security officials are looking for companies to search the Internet for postings "in near to real-time which precede" an attack, particularly a bombing. Bombings are "of great concern" because terrorists can easily get materials and make an improvised-explosive device (IED), the department said.
"There is a lot of IED information generated by terrorists everywhere — websites, forums, people telling you where to buy fertilizer and how to plant IEDs," said Hsinchun Chen, director of the University of Arizona's Artificial Intelligence Lab. Chen's "Dark Web" research project has found 500,000,000 terrorist pages and postings, including tens of thousands that discuss IEDs.
Chen and others aren't sure how helpful blogs and message boards will be in uncovering planned attacks.
"I just can't envision a scenario where somebody posts to a message board, 'I'm getting ready to launch an IED at this location,' and the government will find that," said terrorism analyst Matt Devost. A lot of postings about attacks are "fantasy, almost role-playing," Devost said.
Internet searches are used routinely by government agencies, such as the Defense Department, in gathering intelligence, said Chip Ellis of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism.
The searches use methods similar to a Google query and can be helpful in uncovering the latest IED technology, Ellis said.
Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, praised Homeland Security for "trying to develop innovative approaches" and said its effort would not jeopardize privacy because the department would be scanning public websites.
The department, which declined comment, has made no decision about using Internet searches and is reviewing statements that companies submitted last month describing their ability to do the searches.