There's a reason why the NSA likes metadata so much. Metadata—the auxiliary data generated by every digital move you make—can track a person's digital life in detail. Now a team of Italian academics are showing how metadata can reveal the structure of organized crime groups with a software tool called LogAnalysis, which combines information from mobile phone records with police databases. And among LogAnalysis's first users is the Carabinieri, the Italian military police.
Emilio Ferrara, a postdoc at Indiana University, created LogAnalysis with three researchers from the University of Messina in Sicily. Ferrara explains that their platform "infers, with pretty high confidence, the roles of individuals involved in criminal activity from communication data, simply looking at patterns and network features."
Here's how it works: Police feed phone logs they obtain into LogAnalysis; those then get mashed up with mug shots, criminal records, and other proprietary information from police databases. This information then shapes the Carabinieri's investigations by giving vital clues about intra-group relationships of an organized crime group believed to be behind robberies, extortions, and narcotics trafficking. It's important to note that their paper anonymized all records, and did not identify which organized crime group Italian law enforcement were investigating.
It turns out that metadata can tell quite a lot about the way an organization is set up. Matt Unger, the chief digital officer of New York firm K2 Intelligence, explained over the phone to Fast Company that "with a good analytics platform, cell phone metadata reveals who the influencers are. They are the ones who send and receive the most communications, and you can also see the ripples they make in turn."
A number of software tools are already available to intelligence agencies, law enforcement, military, and private investigators which apply network analysis to mobile phone metadata for their investigations. In the course of their paper, IBM i2's COPLINK and Analyst's Notebook, Xanalys's Link Explorer, and Palantir Government are all cited. The researchers, however, feel their software offers a specific need.
Ferrara believes that many investigative platforms law enforcement use are designed for counterterrorism and cybercrime first, with physical crime as a secondary priority. "Our system is focused on the analysis of communication data related to criminal events occurring in the physical/offline world, as opposed to cybercrime," he says. "It has already proved to be an asset in real investigations related to robberies, murders, prostitution, bribery, and drugs trafficking."