October 19, 2006

C.U. Works for Security Team

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Cornell University was recently chosen by the Department of Homeland Security as part of a team of universities to receive funds in an effort to monitor overseas written communication about the United States.

The project aims to create a computer program capable of sorting facts from opinions written about the U.S. or its leaders and is being developed in collaboration with the Universities of Pittsburgh and Utah. Cornell is slated to receive $850,000 of the $2.4 million grant.

Prof. Claire Cardie, computer science, will lead the research team at Cornell. Her primary research is focused “in the area of natural language understanding and intelligent text processing,” according to her Cornell webpage biography.

Researchers will use machine-learning algorithms to teach computers the difference between statements of fact and opinion. An example of a statement expressing an opinion may begin with “I think” or “I believe.” Computers will look for such statements in written communications and label them as opinions. The technology will also guide users back to the original document so individuals will be able to determine the accuracy of the results.

Although research has already developed programs to obtain factual information from such written sources, Cardie said, “We’re interested in seeing how we would extract information about opinions.”

The cadre of universities is one of four University Affiliate Centers being developed by the Department of Homeland Security. The purpose of the UACs is to create technologies capable of increasing national security.

Cardie insists that the technology will only be used on publicly available documents.

“The techniques would have to be changed considerably to work on documents like e-mails,” she said.

Although the program is being developed to monitor overseas communications, some are worried the Department of Homeland Security may use the software to track domestic communications, which is against federal law.

In an interview with the New York Times, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security Christopher Kelly said that “no effort would be made to do that.”

The research is only a fraction of research being conducted for the Department across the country. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s website, “The Department of Homeland Security is harnessing the nation’s scientific knowledge and technological expertise to protect America and our way of life from terrorism. The Department’s Science and Technology directorate, through its Office of University Programs, is furthering this mission by engaging the academic community to create learning and research environments in areas critical to Homeland Security.”

Despite the program’s objective of separating opinions from facts rather than simply monitoring international opinion, the article published on Oct. 4 in the New York Times was titled, “Software Being Developed To Monitor Opinions on the U.S.”