Military Tests Data Mining of Social Media for Special Ops

08.06.13 | 5 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Updated below, Updated again, 8/9/13

The U.S. military has been investigating the use of sophisticated data mining tools to probe social media and other open sources in order to support military operations against money laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and other threats.  But the window for doing so may be closing as the social media landscape changes, according to an internal assessment.

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) National Capital Region (NCR) conducted a series of experiments over the past year under the rubric “QUANTUM LEAP” that was intended to test “non-traditional” tools and techniques to advance the SOCOM mission. [In fact, only the first experiment was carried out; see update below.]

An after-action report on the first experiment said it “was successful in identifying strategies and techniques for exploiting open sources of information, particularly social media, in support of a counter threat finance mission.”  Counter threat finance refers to efforts to disrupt an adversary’s finances.  A copy of the SOCOM NCR report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Project QUANTUM LEAP: After Action Report,” 12 September 2012.

“Major lessons learned were the pronounced utility of social media in exploiting human networks, including networks in which individual members actively seek to limit their exposure to the internet and social media…,” the report said.

The QUANTUM LEAP project, which did not utilize classified intelligence, relied heavily on participation by private sector firms identified in the report, who demonstrated tools they had developed “to enhance the ability to discover relationships, human networks, and geospatial features” from open source data.

A tool called Social Bubble permitted the search of Twitter-related content “to explore human networks associated with the [counter threat finance] scenario and enabled identification of various entities… associated with the moneylaundering network.”  A tool called Recon was used to reconstruct source documents from a raw data stream.  Another tool served to “collect large quantities of data from the ‘deep web’, or sources which are accessible via the internet but not necessarily indexed or linked via a world wide web page.”  And another called Semantica “is capable of ingesting structured and semi-structured data and displaying it in a ‘triplet’ format, e.g. two entities and a relationship, such as [A is owned by B].”

“More than 200 additional open-source tools and sources were identified relevant to counter threat finance,” the SOCOM report said.

The report said that as valuable as the opportunity created by new techniques for data mining of open sources appears to be, it may prove to be transient.

“We are currently in a ‘window’ of opportunity for exploitation of social media sources for application to CTF [counter threat finance] or other SOCOM NCR missions. This window could be as narrow as 18-24 months before the social media phenomenon transforms. This future transformation is unknown and could offer additional opportunities, or existing opportunities could be closed, but the only thing that is certain is that there will continue to be rapid change.”

There are also unresolved legal issues.

“Legal review of the appropriate use and application of social media data is in its infancy. Social media is transforming notions of privacy and distinctions between personally identifiable information (PII) and self-reported public information will have to be established by precedent in case law,” the report said.

“Almost all information relevant to the QUANTUM LEAP experiment has a locative context [revealing the location of the source]. Location based services (LBS) are becoming integrated into every facet of our lives and are becoming much more accepted. There is a cultural/generational component to acceptance of LBS in social media,” the report said.

SOCOM Public Affairs did not respond to requests for comment or further information about the project, and the report describing the effort (labeled “draft”) has not been formally released.  However, the report was kept unclassified, facilitating its dissemination and discussion among the interested public.

Meanwhile, the future of SOCOM National Capital Region is itself uncertain, as Congress has thus far declined to authorize or appropriate funds that were requested for it in the coming fiscal year.

“The Committee remains unclear about the function, purpose, and costs associated with the operations, infrastructure, and facilities for this entity [SOCOM National Capital Region] both in the interim phase and the final end-state,” according to a June 2013 report of the House Appropriations Committee. “Further, the Committee has received conflicting information over the course of the last year as to the purpose of this entity.”

Project QUANTUM LEAP derives its name and inspiration from an initiative in the late 1990s to incorporate advanced technologies into Naval Special Warfare capabilities.  That earlier Project QUANTUM LEAP was described in “Stimulating Innovation in Naval Special Warfare by Utilizing Small Working Groups” by Thomas A. Rainville, Master’s Thesis, March 2001.

Update (Aug. 6, 4:30 pm): Ken McGraw of U.S. Special Operations Command advised as follows: “We cannot confirm the validity of any of the information listed in the After Action Report. The only information we have received so far is the program is no longer in existence and the people who worked on the program are no longer there. We will provide you additional information when we get it.”

Update 2 (Aug. 9, 11:00 am): Ken McGraw of U.S. Special Operations Command provided the following information:

Quantum Leap was a small, little known experiment that was defunded some time ago so it took us a while to get answers to peoples’ questions.

Question: What is the current status of Project QUANTUM LEAP?

Answer: Quantum Leap was defunded and is no longer in existence.

Question: Were all of the planned six parts of the project carried out?

Answer: No. Only one of the six parts was completed.

Question: Is it possible to briefly summarize the utility of the Project to date?

Answer: As I stated above, Quantum Leap was a very small, little-known, inconsequential experiment that was defunded. The reason it took us so long to get any information on it was because it was so small and inconsequential. The people who worked on the experiment are no longer even in the headquarters. The real focus of Quantum Leap was creating an environment and a process that would improve collaboration with interagency organizations.

It is unfortunate that people took a draft after action report that was filled with incorrect information, as best we can determine, and made quantum leaps in judgment about the importance of the experiment. The experiment was so inconsequential the after action report was never finalized.

Question: Will it have any continuing legacy for SOCOM (or SOCOM-NCR)?

Answer: Quantum Leap will not have a continuing legacy.

Ken McGraw

Public Affairs Officer

US Special Operations Command