Agency extends covert social networks project

A multiyear research project to develop methods of identifying covert social networks, originally funded with $797,000 from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to principal investigator Matthew E. Brashears, has been extended with another $629,020.

The assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Science had begun the study - with the goal of developing techniques to detect networking activity among terrorists plotting attacks, human traffickers, drug smugglers and other groups - by analyzing social networks of American high school students.

After successfully working out "basic theory," Brashears says, "Now we’re elaborating it so that it can apply in a wider variety of circumstances and explain more phenomena. We can predict deviant activity, athletic activity and weight beliefs/behaviors using our methods. This may not sound a lot like terrorism, but the key is that we can predict who is doing what using very limited data, which allows our general method to be used for other purposes."

Currently under development are simulation models of "greedy" organizations, including cults and terrorist cells, to understand the conditions that encourage their growth and survival. "We’ve also developed a software tool to implement our analyses and are continuing to refine its capabilities," Brashears reports.