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21st-century DARPA Tool Could Work Against ISIL

By Cheryl Pellerin DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, March 2, 2015 — Today’s national security landscape challenges the Defense Department with threats ranging from low-tech, lone-wolf terrorists and high-tech peer adversaries to extremist groups that use both approaches, like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency prepares for them all.

DARPA Director Dr. Arati Prabhakar spoke here recently with CNN defense correspondent Barbara Starr at the First Annual Future of War Conference.

“My first tour at DARPA was in the Cold War, and at that time [we] worked against the one monolithic existential threat and everything else was just sort of backseat,” Prabhakar said.

“We don't really have the luxury of dealing with [just] one kind of national security threat today,” she added.

The National Security Landscape

The spread and violence of ISIL is what she called a “today issue,” as is the historic West African outbreak of Ebola virus disease.

Such crises will flare up and be part of the national security environment, “and how we deal with them as technology changes and what those kinds of actors are able to do -- that's part of the national security landscape but it’s not the whole story,” the director said.

“We know as well that nation states around the world are changing their military positions, their military capabilities, and with those shifts come the concern about an acute national security threat in the future that we want to deter and defeat if that becomes necessary,” she added.

The challenge for the department is a wide spectrum of threats, Prabhakar said, from low-tech terrorist groups to peer adversaries.

A Wide Spectrum of Threats

Deterring conflicts with peer adversaries will require sophisticated high-end technology, the director said.

“At DARPA what we think about is how do we prepare for that environment, how do we get ourselves to a place where we are able to deter and defeat if necessary a very technologically enabled peer adversary, but how do we do it in a way that isn't just more of the same from the past? You'll see those kinds of ideas about rethinking complex military assistance throughout our portfolio,” she explained.

Adversaries like ISIL use low-tech approaches combined with 21st-century components in their use of social media for terrorism and recruitment, she said.

“The 21st-century tools are the scalable part,” Prabhakar added, “and I think that's the piece that needs addressing in order to deal with the whole situation. In fact, we're beginning now to have tools and techniques to start dealing with that.”

Using Internet Tools Against ISIL

For their own nefarious purposes, she said, ISIL uses the same infrastructure that everyone uses for connectivity, commerce and interacting with family and community.

“Today at DARPA we are developing some of the tools and technologies to start seeing patterns of interconnection in the vastness of the Internet,” she said.

A DARPA program called Memex started by developing a way to understand linkages among websites, initially to help fight sex trafficking, the director explained.

The program got its name and inspiration from a hypothetical device described in “As We May Think,” a 1945 article for the Atlantic Monthly magazine written by Vannevar Bush, director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, according to DARPA’s website.

A Tool for Law Enforcement

The early Memex work rapidly led to the ability to see, for example, the same phone numbers that would pop up over and over again in a website, Prabhakar said.

“And we started quickly being able to give law enforcement, in that case, a tool that allowed them,” she said, to do domain-specific deep Web searches rather than a single-threaded search through the small portion of the web indexed by Google or Bing.

In the human trafficking world, Memex is leading to indictments and convictions, the director said, “but those tools can be used for many other purposes, and today we're starting to help in the fight against [ISIL] using those same kinds of tools.”

The director declined to discuss that ongoing work, but she said the tool’s usefulness has played out well in the case of law enforcement and human trafficking.

Looking for Patterns and Networks

“There, we started working with law enforcement in the Dallas, Texas, region, where they were looking for sex-trafficking patterns and networks,” the director said.

Memex experts looked at back-page ads in the region and from there were able to build a quick assessment of where the same phone numbers kept showing up on multiple websites.

“If you're looking across thousands and thousands [of ads] manually, you wouldn't have seen it,” Prabhakar said, “but we were able to scoop up these high-value phone numbers and hand them to law enforcement.”

The law enforcement colleagues were “sort of taken aback initially by how rich that dataset was,” she added, and many of the numbers tied to criminal violations the officers were familiar with through conventional law enforcement means.

Fighting ISIL Online

More interesting from a national security point of view, the director said, was the discovery that some of the phone numbers linked to fund transfers in the region around North Korea, and that started them on the trail of looking for a trafficking network.

“That’s the kind of work that is now being picked up by law enforcement and is starting to help put people behind bars for human trafficking and sex trafficking,” Prabhakar said.

“But you can imagine how that might give you a way to see how the [ISIL] global community, that's spreading like cancer,” she added, “is using that infrastructure similarly.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)