The CIA is quietly funding federal research into surveillance of Internet chat rooms as part of an effort to identify possible terrorists, CNET News.com has learned.
In April 2003, the CIA agreed to fund a series of research projects that newly disclosed government 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.
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 News.com.
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."
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 for chatting online, IRC attracts hundreds of thousands of users every day. A history written by IRC creator Jarkko Oikarinen said the concept grew out of chat technology for modem-based bulletin boards in the 1980s.
The Yener and Krishnamoorthy proposal says their research will begin Jan. 1, 2005 but does not say which IRC servers will be monitored.
A June 2004 paper they published, also funded by the NSF, quietly monitored users of the popular Undernet network, which has about 144,000 users and 50,000 channels. In the paper, Yener and Krishnamoorthy predicted their work "could aid (the) intelligence community to eavesdrop in chat rooms, profile chatters and identify hidden groups of chatters in a cost-effective way" and that their future research will focus on identifying "topic-based information."
Al Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said he does not object to the CIA funding terrorism-related research in general.
"I don't know about chat-room surveillance, but doing research on issues related to terrorism is certainly legitimate," Teich said. "Whether the CIA ought to be funding research in universities in a clandestine manner is a different issue."