MoD funding research into hacktivism and Internet culture - but why?

One branch of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is funding postgraduate research into Internet culture, online communities and hacker groups, according to new reports. The research will also focus on how the use of Twitter, Facebook and online conspiracy theories effect people in times of crisis.

The branch responsible, the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), allegedly pays six-figure sums out of a £10 million budget to support chosen PhD students in their research.

While some of these projects are what you might expect from military-funded PhDs, such as the technology necessary to develop underwater drones, and "smart" clothing, others might raise some eyebrows in certain parts of the online community.

One example is the £97,487 of funding awarded to researchers at King's College London working on "the rise of the digital insurgency," research largely concerning the hacktivist group Anonymous, which has hit headlines repeatedly over the last few years for hacking countless high profile websites belonging to the Church of Scientology, the English Defence League (EDL), Singapore's largest newspaper, and the Vatican, causing no little concern among authorities.

The project abstract argues that "The events of the Arab spring, the London student protests or the summer 2011 riots in English towns and cities show the importance of understanding synchronised collective actions driven by online interactions."

Researchers hope the project will "deliver new and innovative ways to understand and influence online behaviour".

The focus of a £137,433 PhD programme at Queen Mary, University of London, slightly ominously called "Analysing and influencing crowd behaviours through arrays of ad-hoc mobile sensors" seeks to "provide essential tools for event planners and event monitors for wide ranges of events, planned (festivals, football matches, political rallies) or ad hoc (riots, protests)."

£139,649 is also being spent on another Queen Mary PhD called "Cross-cultural attitudes and the shaping of online behaviour in crisis situations".

The project intends to "look at how news production is mediated by first-hand accounts through social media platforms... and their function in mediating trauma as well as in endorsing or rejecting dominant commentaries (including conspiracy theories and propaganda) in mainstream media".

Nick Pickles, the director of Big Brother Watch, said: "People will rightly want to know why the Ministry of Defence is investing in research that clearly carries significant privacy implications."

"The department needs to be much more transparent about why it is funding so much of this research if the public are to have confidence that it does not threaten our civil liberties and that the military's surveillance capabilities are not to be turned on British citizens."

An MoD spokesperson said: "Cyber-security is an issue of growing importance. As routine cyber-security measures (patching, anti-virus) become ubiquitous, socially engineered attacks are a growing threat."

"DSTL seeks to understand these threats and the vulnerabilities they exploit in order to provide effective advice and support to the MoD and wider government on defending against these threats."

The news comes after months of attacks by Anonymous Indonesia on Australian targets, including police, government and small business, for Australia's role in the NSA spying scandal.