How social networks can stop terrorism

Monday - 7/19/2010, 5:42pm EDT

Matthew Brashears, assistant professor of sociology, Cornell University,

Click to hear the interview

Download mp3

Matthew Brashears thinks he might be able to stop terrorist attacks by first understanding the social connections terrorists form.

Brashears, an assistant professor of Sociology at Cornell University, and his graduate student Mike Genkin have received a three-year grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to study covert social networks. The hope is that this research will help the government stop terrorists and criminals before they strike.

"Our goal is to develop techniques to uncover covert social networks that could be used by terrorists, human traffickers or drug smugglers - any group of people who have to link up to achieve an objective and don't want to be detected by the wider society," Brashears says.

Brashears is quick to note that 'social network' does not always mean Facebook and Twitter. He explains that a social network is can be any grouping of individuals who pass information and support back and forth. This has been an area of research within sociology for more than a decade.

But that doesn't mean it's simple. "The fundamental problem with a social network," Brashears says, "is that it is difficult to detect."

This is especially true for terrorist cells, which operate more as "loosely-structured networks of association" than rigid command structures, he explains.

Brashears calls current techniques like profiling "blunt instruments" for detecting these types of associations. He says this is particularly true of attempts to prevent attacks "using data from the terrorists that were bad enough at it that we already found them."

The goal of Brashears' research, he says, is to develop more precise methods.

"We're trying to get away from profiling altogether and come up with something that kicks up just the folks that we should be concerned about, and doesn't force this mass harassment of a lot of people that we shouldn't be concerned about," he says.

"These techniques hopefully will enable government and law enforcement agencies to better solve the needle-in-a-haystack issue: how to track down small numbers of terrorists among millions of people."

While he hopes his work will help stop terrorists, Brashears says his research should be applicable towards other organized, deviant groups as well.

Rachel Stevens is an intern with Federal News Radio.