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Geo-Tagging Tech Scouts Terrorist Mystery Locations

IARPA's Finder Program aims to help U.S. intelligence agencies identify locations in photographs related to terrorist activity.

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The organization that conducts research for the U.S. intelligence community plans to develop technology that can identify exactly where photographs were taken to help agencies like the CIA investigate terrorist activities.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity's (IARPA's) Finder Program aims to build on existing geo-tagging technologies to identify locations in photographs even when they're not widely traveled or well known. The organization's Office of Incisive Analysis is overseeing the project, which also is posted on FedBizOpps.gov.

If successful, the project should "deliver rigorously tested solutions for the image/video geolocation task in any outdoor terrestrial location," according to IARPA. Agencies, for instance, could use the technology to identify locations in photographs of suspected or known terrorists to pinpoint where they are so they can be monitored or apprehended.

Existing geo-tagging systems use a variety of ways--including large-scale ground-level image acquisition, crowdsourcing, and sophisticated image matching--to identify locations in photographs, IARPA said in a solicitation about the project posted on its website.

However, these tend to work best in geographic areas "with significant population densities or that are well traveled by tourists, and where the query image or video contains notable features such as mountains or buildings," according to IARPA.

But identifying locations in photographs for places that don't meet these criteria has been difficult, though intelligence agencies have certainly tried to do so.

In the past, analysts have used reference data from a number of sources--including overhead and ground-based images, digital elevation data, existing well-understood image collections, surface geology, geography, and cultural information--to determine a location in a photograph.

Understandably, however, this process is "an extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive activity," according to IARPA, that's met with "limited success."

The goals of the Finder Program are to build on existing geo-location and geo-tagging technologies to integrate analysts' own abilities so the two together can be used in photograph-location analysis, according to IARPA. Modern image-capturing devices tag the photographs they take with a global positioning system (GPS) identifier, which is the basis for such technologies.

The organization also hopes to fuse a range of publicly available data sources and enhance automated geo-location technologies so they can work over all terrains and large search areas, it said.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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