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UK MoD allocates millions for ‘digital insurgency’, social networking research

Published time: January 08, 2014 15:18
Reuters / Jorge Silva

Reuters / Jorge Silva

The UK’s Ministry of Defence is channeling millions into funding postgraduate studies, such as ‘digital insurgency’, mapping hacker groups such as Anonymous, social networking, online influences on behavior, and tracking crowds by phone.

PhD papers, sponsored by the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DTSL), encompass the developing role of cyberspace as it reaches through the culture of hackers and looks into behavior in crowd situations, such as at music festivals and football matches, according to the Guardian.

The impact of social media such as Twitter and Facebook in times of crisis will also be mapped, not to mention online conspiracy theories during crises.

Some £10 million ($16 million) will be poured into the program by the DTSL. However, a large portion of the PhD projects it supports have a more conventional technological purpose, such as the development of underwater drones and electronic clothing.

‘The rise of the digital insurgency’ at King's College London has been allocated £97,487 ($160,000) and will include specific research into the hacktivist group, ‘Anonymous’. Participants in the project will be required to “interact” with its members, supposedly to understand the group’s targets, motivations and complaints. This feat could prove tricky with a group that firmly states “no single individual or cell can possibly represent a broad-based global movement.”

The DTSL itself has additionally put out a call for conference papers to be delivered in February. ‘Social Influence in the Information Age’ intends to explore “Identified technology-driven social trends; novel social analytical tools and techniques enabled by the internet; the role of cyber-platforms in enabling individuals to form novel groupings,” and “the role of cyber-platforms in creating novel influence channels for both groups and individuals.” The actual conference will, however, be by invitation-only.

Further PhD projects will be funded nationwide, at the universities of Exeter, Southampton, Glasgow and Queen Mary, University of London in order to examine the influence of online behavior on societies. Exeter has been granted £82,630 ($136,000) by the DTSL for its PhD research on ‘Collective Action in the Digital Age: Social identities and the influence of online and offline behavior.’

“The question of how people from various walks of life, with a range of social networks, can emerge onto the street and engage in coordinated action is a complex but important one,” the project description states, acknowledging their formative impact on protest movements in Egypt, the 2011 riots across English towns and cities, and the London student fee protests.

Queen Mary is receiving funding for two separate projects: one, which looks at the ways technology might be used to exert influence, gets £137,433 ($225,720); another entitled,‘Cross-cultural attitudes and the shaping of online behavior in crisis situations’ receives £139,649 ($229,360), according to the statistics seen by the Guardian. Part of the first program involves the analysis of crowd behavior through ad-hoc mobile sensors – which are generally used in mobile phones for mapping, and can be used to track the whereabouts of the phone’s owner.

One of the methods to receive focus will be ‘targeting influential individuals’ and crowdsourcing.

The second program will explore information flow in times of crisis on social media, and how “dominant’” media commentaries are overridden or debased by firsthand accounts.

"Significant privacy implications"


Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, told the paper that the move to fund this sort of research raised serious questions: “There is often a strong case for moves in this direction to be tempered by some very hard thinking about the ethics of these questions, and the risk of legitimate policing slipping, potentially, into being attempts to control and influence,” she said.

“Obviously, the nature and type of the mass surveillance which we now know that the NSA and GCHQ engaged in was simply not legitimate,” she added, giving a reminder of the mass government surveillance which has been exposed to the public by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, since June.

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch stated the research “clearly carries significant privacy implications.”

“The department needs to be much more transparent about why it is funding so much of this research, if the public are to have confidence that it does not threaten our civil liberties and that the military's surveillance capabilities are not to be turned on British citizens,”
Pickles said.

An MoD spokesperson said that the organization was “trying to understand the world in which we live” and that in doing so, it needs to assimilate “an understanding of events in cyberspace and how they might unfold.”

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