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Spies seek geotagging software

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Pakistanis and international and local media gather outside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. Special Forces on May 3 in Abottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military mission May 2)

Osama bin Laden regularly taunted with propaganda photos and videos that left us asking: where in the world is he? U.S. spy agencies want software that analyzes and quickly identifies where such imagery was made.

Currently, human intelligence analysts pore over propaganda imagery to tease out clues from things such as the geography, vegetation and even the style of clothes worn and gadgets used, and try to match them up with existing images taken from satellites and on the ground.


But this is "an extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive activity that often meets with limited success," notes the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency in its announcement for the Finder Program.

The agency is the intelligence community's DARPA, the secretive military research agency that funds similar futuristic-sounding initiatives such as machines that are able to think for themselves.

Computer programmers have already come up with a bunch of fancy tools to manipulate and find information in images, including animation software to trace faces through the years, Facebook's facial recognition program , and a search engine that IDs stars in photos of the night sky.

Google recently launched an image search engine billed as being able to do the type of task IARPA wants, but it's full of kinks. It can't even distinguish George W. Bush from Barack Obama. Reverse image search engine TinyEye  is designed to perform a similar function.

IARPA says these types of consumer-oriented systems are limited because they "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."

The Finder Program, as its wished-for software is called, "will deliver rigorously tested solutions for the image/video geolocation task in any outdoor terrestrial location."

Work on the program is scheduled to kick off in earnest next January. That hoped-for solution isn't expected until 2016. But when it comes, and even as researchers work on the task, terrorists will have to be ever more careful about what to include in their propaganda imagery.

 


Tip o' the Log to The Telegraph.

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).