Scientists in Switzerland said on Friday they had devised software that can swiftly trace terror suspects, computer viruses, rumor-mongering and even infectious diseases back to their source.
“Using our method, we can find the source of all kinds of things circulating in a network just by ‘listening’ to a limited number of members of that network,” said researcher Pedro Pinto, of Lausanne’s Federal Polytechnic (EPFL).
The program, known as an algorithm, works by fast-tracking the route taken by the information to arrive back at its original source.
A key factor is using the time at which the data is passed from sender to recipient, to help investigators follow as the path as directly as possible and eliminate false trails.
Publishing in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters, Pinto’s team tested the algorithm on a known data maze to see if the tool could pinpoint the individuals behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
“By reconstructing the message exchange inside the 9/11 terrorist network extracted from publicly released news, our system spit out the names of three potential suspects — one of whom was found to be the mastermind of the attacks, according to the official inquiry,” he said.
Taking social networking sites as another example, Pinto said individuals could use the algorithm to find out who had started a rumor posted to 500 contacts by looking at posts received by between 15 and 20 of them.
The same algorithm could be used to identify the origin of unwanted online messages (spam) or a computer virus, Pinto said.
It could also be used to help epidemiologists, he said.
Pinto traced the source of a cholera outbreak in South Africa after applying the formula to water and transport networks.