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Mapping Terrorist Networks

Controversy sparked when Americans learned the NSA has been collecting metadata of phone records of people across the country, with the government’s approval. Despite this public outage, the information collected could assist in counterterrorism efforts through methods of social network analysis.

Network scientist Valdis Krebs published a paper explaining how to map terrorist networks efficiently and effectively. Rather than keep watch on suspects over time, law enforcement is instead diagraming networks that can help to link lower-level suspects to leaders. Although communication records contain invaluable knowledge, of course not all contacts of suspects are worth investigating. To build a map of communication records, Rapoport’s theory of triadic closure should be utilized. By looking at suspects with mutual communication contacts, a web of connections begins to appear. Further analysis of contacts of contacts of terrorists, paying specific attention to triads, creates a clearer picture. People with a link to only one suspect are overlooked; police no longer have to go through an unnecessary investigation process for every person a suspect has ever had contact with.

Additional social network theory analytics assist in gaining more insight of the terrorism linkage. Mathematics can reveal who is the most central and therefore most integrated in the network, possibly pointing to a leader of the system. Bridges can show which contacts have the vital role of linking otherwise unrelated people to the network. Although people feel their security has been breached through these phone records, “it has been estimated that the 9-11 network could have been broken up if just three central nodes had been taken out”. Americans are quick to chastise the government for impeding on their right to privacy, but the government is not alone in their actions. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter also analyze their users’ communication habits to target potential friendships and interests. Popular stores like Walmart and Amazon likewise map their customers’ shopping patterns to give them products to mirror their lifestyles. The government’s actions are not unusual in this way, and since their benefits are substantial, it is unlikely public anger will put an end to this practice.



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