Students find Solutions to Transnational Security

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For the past month students have been developing solutions to transnational security. They have been looking for ways to leverage the latest in data science tools and technologies to increase the productivity of experts and analysts trying to stay one step ahead of criminals who use social media, mobile banking, cryptocurrencies, shell companies, and shadow NGOs to raise and move funds around the globe. Each team is working on a unique solution, which will provide NGOs working in counter-terrorism with tools and methods that enhance their ability to an aggregate and analyze data.

On Monday, March 6, the teams had the chance to pitch and receive advice from Yaya Fanusie, a UC Berkeley alum who has previously worked for the CIA, and is currently Director of Analysis at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has years of experience in the intelligence and counterterrorism community. Yaya said, “I am really impressed with all the teams. Their projects have a large range from flights to Blockchain to Twitter. I was impressed that in every project you can clearly identify the use for the government, NGO, and/or private sector.”

For their final pitch, the teams must display a minimum viable product accompanied by market research and a sustainable business model. “We will be looking for a strong demo to see exactly how the product works. Right now all the teams are still in ideation. For the final pitch, we want to visually see proof that it can work, even if it is with a small data set,” said Yaya.

Yaya and the other mentors can see that this Collider Project is a great opportunity to find solutions to the evolving challenge of financing terrorism. Yaya mentioned that “This project is really bringing DC and Berkeley together. Berkeley students are learning about how policy is happening in DC. At the same time, I can see how DC policy makers can benefit from the creative, technology driven ideas crafted by the Berkeley students.”

 

Below are summaries of each team’s mid-point check-in pitch.  The final pitches will take place on April 17, so each of these ideas will evolve and may change substantially before then.

Team 1: Flight Data on a Massive Scale

The problem is that flight data is currently available only in a live-time format. This makes it a gruesome task to analyze and study previous flight paths. Furthermore, the analysis of any past flight information relies on manual downloading and sorting, making it difficult for individuals who do not have the required technical skills. Overall, wide varieties of analyses use flight information, but analysts struggle to make meaningful conclusions based only on live time data.

Their solution is to completely open source flight data archives and analysis engines.  They plan to keep track and dynamically add flight information for each day as posted, and store the information in an efficient, sorted and searchable manner in a SparkSQL DB. Moreover, they plan to create an easy to use interface that makes data accessible to non-technical users.

There are many use cases such as DEA analysis of drug trafficking through airways, sanctions evasion tracking, trend analysis of long-term flight patterns, study of suspicious aircrafts, and tracking the past movements of newly OFAC Sanctioned Airlines. Yaya mentioned that he could “definitely see the benefits of using this technology. DEA could certainly use it.”

An important question the team was asked was if the analysts would be able to customize their queries of the data. For example, what flights originating from x country have landed at y country over the past 2 weeks?

 

Team 2: Blockchain Accessibility

Their goal to is help NGOs easily access important information from identified terrorist nodes and transactions.  

The problem is that Bitcoin provides a growing opportunity for terrorists to fundraise anonymously. Technologies exist for tracking transactions on the Blockchain — Bitcoin’s distributed ledger system — but are difficult for non-Blockchain specialists to use. Also, NGOs track the transactions to/from these nodes manually, having to iterate through many transactions in order to find useful information.

They have a 3-part solution to address Blockchain accessibility. First, they plan to allow users to create a list of Bitcoin addresses to monitor, and send notifications to users whenever the identified addresses send or receive transactions. Second, they will trace transactions to/from identified terrorist addresses back to exchange nodes or identified addresses, and generate reports of important details such as the number of transactions, average amount, and exchange used.  Based on the identified nodes, their last step is to generate an interactive and simple network graph that allows users to find common details between transactions, identify related nodes, and add custom transactions.

Their value proposition is simplification, continuous monitoring, and identification of useful data. They hope to provide a central, streamlined system for NGOs to continuously monitor and easily find data about Bitcoin addresses without having deep knowledge of the technology and without having to manually check. The reports are also tailored to provide information that is useful for NGOs focused on counter-terrorism, cutting out any other extra data that might confuse users.

 

Team 3: Charity Cases

Either willingly or negligently, charities play a significant role in the funding of terrorist operations, especially in contested regions. While few to no registered US charities fund terrorism purposely, it becomes difficult to follow the money as it changes hands. Individuals need better tools to evaluate charities so they can make informed donations. Charities also need better risk-assessment tools for their own compliance work.

Their solution is focused on gathering data of charities with a connection to terrorist financing. To do this, they will be using a variety of data sources in order to map the charities and visualize the connections between them.

The biggest challenge they will face is doing this in a way that does not accuse organizations of doing terrorist activity. They hope to not make any claims about the charity itself or its intentions.

Their value proposition is in the information they will gather and the accessibility of the data. Donors can have access to better information before they make any decisions. Yaya mentioned that “this is an important tool to see if charities have connections to terrorist organizations and could be a good tool to assess risk. The IRS could definitely use it.” An important question they must answer is if the platform would be able to identify any overlapping data among charities in the dataset. For example, if there are directors of charities which have exhibited red flags with other charities in the dataset.

 

Team 4: OFAC

The OFAC database provides an open source of information about individuals and organizations that have been sanctioned by the US government. The problem this team noticed is that the current website is inconvenient and inefficient. The navigation is extremely poor, and simple tasks easily become tedious and time consuming. Tasks such as identifying members of a sanctioned organization or listing the affiliations a designated person, are becoming much more complicated.  While financial institutions might have the luxury of using expensive software to gather information, most NGOs and think tanks often do not and would benefit from a more user-friendly OFAC database.  

Thus, their solution is to create a new website: OFAC 2.0. They hope to optimize intuitive navigation for users that use OFAC infrequently, and basically make common tasks less tedious. For example, identifying undesignated individuals & organizations, constituents of sanctioned organizations, or even cross referencing with other sanctions databases.

Their value proposition is focused on helping NGOs, Think Tanks, Research Institutions, and Financial Institutions easily use the database. They will allow all these users to access the data in a clean, simple manner. Thus, allowing them to spend time on investigation and research, rather than the menial task of data collection and processing related to sanctioned individuals. Since a big part of their value add will be in better formatting OFAC/UN data, they need to come up with specific ways of improving the website.

Yaya mentioned that “their biggest challenge will be making the website as intuitive as possible and gathering all the data. The OFAC website is extremely hard to use. But improving the user interface will make it easier to use and do research.”

 

Team 5: Terrorist activity on Twitter.

The problem this team noticed is that it takes hours to search through twitter to search for terrorist accounts. There is also high turnover data and it is impossible to learn from old accounts.

Their solution is to create a Twitter Bot, or an automation of the search process. They hope to create a graphical view of connections, understand the influence of radicalizing tweets, and archive (accounts & links) for later analysis.

Yaya agreed with this solution, as it is “very hard for an analyst to find data on these accounts once the accounts are deleted. Their tool would solve that problem.”

A difficulty they may face is with two accounts. For example, if there are two accounts of interest would the tool be able to show comparative analysis of posts over time? Is there concurrent activity?

 

 

Sponsor

Center for Advanced Defense Studies:
 C4ADS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting on global conflict and transnational security issues. They engage with local and international audiences and produce compelling analysis on conflict and security issues. In doing so, C4ADS fills a critical gap left by traditional public sector and profit-driven institutions.

Advisors

Financial Integrity Network
: FIN delivers a broad array of strategic, advisory, and technical services to a diverse group of financial clients committed to financial integrity.  FIN’s services, assist clients in designing and implementing financial integrity strategies and systems to combat and protect against the full range of illicit financing threats.

The Counter Extremism Project: CEP is a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies. Led by a renowned group of former world leaders and diplomats it combats extremism by pressuring financial and material support networks; countering the narrative of extremists and their online recruitment; and advocating for smart laws, policies, and regulations.

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