Say goodbye to the fingerprint, it’s the digital footprint counter-terror investigators want

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 10:28pm

The era of the fingerprint has given way to the digital footprint.

That is the upshot of a Washington forum on Tuesday by the German software giant SAP that brought together officials from the CIA, FBI, law enforcement and private security companies under the title “Wave of Change.”

Counterterrorism investigators still rely heavily on tools such as surveillance cameras, license plate readers and facial recognition software to track potential terror plots in the physical realm. But they now delve with as much vigour into the social media activity of suspects.

Investigators plot digital networks. They do what is called “sentiment analysis” to determine how a suspect feels. They swim in the sea of data freely provided by the burgeoning use of social media around the world.

“We learn more from the digital footprint of most of the individuals we investigate than from their physical fingerprint,” said Rebecca Weiner, assistant commissioner of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department’s intelligence bureau.

Data analysis of social media “is revolutionising crime fighting as well as counterterrorism,” she said, even as agencies struggle to stay abreast of the “dizzying array of data services and platforms” that allow them to monitor social media.

“Are we going to find every pledge of allegiance to (Islamic State leader) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on 1.7 billion Facebook accounts? Are we going to see that on 500 million tweets at NYPD? … Absolutely not. But we are able to find stuff we would have never found before,” Weiner said. “So we can find an individual who is an ISIL sympathiser in Staten Island or the administrator of an extremist forum in Manhattan.”

Social media accounts can give federal investigators an immediate look at a suspect’s network of friends and associates, said Philip Mudd, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst who also held a top post in the FBI’s National Security branch before retiring in 2010.

“I need context. Do they quote verses from the Quran? Do they talk about acquiring nails from Amazon because they are going to build a backpack bomb?” Mudd asked.

Mudd said physical surveillance tools also remained critical in an unfolding terrorism event .

Investigators can gather cellphone data and emails from the suspect, he said, but they must fuse it with other sources of data, requiring massive digital capabilities.

“I want to know, are there license plate readers showing this person coming through the Holland Tunnel? Are there commercial cameras in the neighbourhood — ATM cameras, stores, banks — that might show who was in a two-block radius over the past 48 hours? I want to fuse that with the phone and email” information, Mudd said.

The need for law enforcement to crunch data, crosscheck it and fuse it is huge and growing, he said.

Experts refer to the challenges of such massive data sifting as the four V’s — volume, variety, veracity and velocity — and say the key is in finding useful data amid the chaff.

In some cases, FBI experts turn to the somewhat creepy sounding sentiment analysis, monitoring the social media accounts of a suspect to extract mood changes or emotional reaction.

If a suspect espouses violence or takes steps to mobilise, Steinbach said, the FBI can act.

“I’m not talking about tracking the sentiments of all the legitimate people out on social media. But once we’ve identified an individual, and predicated an investigation, that person, we can track his behavior and his steps toward mobilisation,” Steinbach said.