By looking for patterns in email traffic, a new technique can quickly identify online communities and the key people in them. The approach could mean terrorists or criminal gangs give themselves away, even if they are communicating in code or only discussing the weather.



“If the CIA or another intelligence agency has a lot of intercepted email from people suspected of being part of a criminal network, they could use the technique to figure out who the leaders of the network might be,” says Joshua Tyler of Hewlett-Packard’s labs in Palo Alto, California. At the very least, it would help them prioritise investigations, he says.



Tyler and his colleagues Dennis Wilkinson and Bernardo Huberman, study email communication patterns and communities among networks of people. The trio wondered if they could identify distinct communities within Hewlett-Packard’s research lab simply by analysing the IT manager’s log of nearly 200,000 internal emails sent by 485 employees over a couple of months.
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