Opportunities for ISIS Analytics: Data Mining, “Big Data”, and Terrorism

“Bergbruk. Fristad” by Raphael Saulus

By: Kathryn Wallace

Data mining is the organization and interpretation of massive swaths of digital information collected from every transaction and online interaction you make. The cyber statisticians of numerous corporations use data mining in order to predict your future consumption and preferences and to directly target susceptible audiences for particular products and services. Government analysts attempt to use data mining to track and predict social and political movements and activities of criminal organizations.

Every credit card purchase you make, every song you “like” on your Pandora station, every update made to your Facebook profile and every hashtag on your Twitter has been sold for less than a cent to advertisers so that they can narrow down the products to which, according to their algorithms and predictions, you will be most responsive (For more on data mining)

Admittedly, data mining can be beneficial for all involved: it matches consumers to suppliers, making the market more efficient. However, it raises concerns about individual privacy and the desensitization of the millennial generation to digital monitoring. But what are the geopolitical implications of data mining? As our personal information becomes easily accessible, our vulnerability to targeted cyber attacks increases. Extremists groups could potentially use data mining in order to revolutionize their current recruitment strategy, targeting individuals in the same way advertisers do.

According to US officials, there are more than 20,000 foreign fighters aiding extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda; more than 3,000 of which have come from Western nations. These terrorist organizations have carried out organized, highly visible, and brutal public relations campaigns. ISIS in particular has targeted Muslims in the West through the dissemination of magazines in multiple languages, the use of high-quality media production techniques, and an extensive presence in social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter.

Thus far, ISIS’ digital strategy seems to rely more heavily on public relations than advanced technology. However, there is potential for the online recruitment strategy of extremist groups to evolve in order to include data mining to target vulnerable populations. In the same way that companies purchase or gather our data, any organization can obtain our information in order to predict our preferences and behaviors.

Extremist groups could streamline the recruitment process by developing data mining techniques which distinguish individuals who would be most susceptible to anti-Western, pro-radical rhetoric. By targeting and in-a-sense advertising to these individuals, these groups could mobilize the support of Westerners to their radical ideologies. This could intensify the national security risks already made apparent by the recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen.

But the implications of radicals utilizing 21st century technology are not all negative. Digital information interpretation can be used to target extremist groups as well. Due to the substantial online presence of many extremists, (including widespread selfie campaigns on social media), government analysts can use data mining techniques in order to identify and pursue threatening individuals as well.


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Kathryn A. Wallace is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School studying diplomacy with a concentration in Latin America. She is particularly interested in issues relating to women’s and reproductive rights. Feel free to contact her for potential opportunities at www.linkedIn.com/in/kathrynawallace/.

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