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Connecting the dots

Sometimes people stumble across research impact just by poking around the internet.

That happened to ANU College of Asia and the Pacific student Nathan Ruser, who has a keen interest in maps. He was looking at a global heat map put out by Strava, a service that tracks the routes of its jogging and biking members, and noticed security forces exercising around remote US military facilities in Syria.

“I knew where the bases were. Every bright spot is a base,” said Ruser, 20, who is majoring in international security studies. “I just happened to come across the map and put two and two together.”

Ruser posted his observations on a group chat that included a reporter at the Washington Post. The reporter wrote an article in January 2018 that said Ruser’s discovery was a major security oversight because it revealed highly sensitive information about US operations at remote military bases in Syria. The story went viral internationally.

Ruser spoke to more than a dozen media outlets, was contacted by many others and ended up on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald in the following days. Other analysts and enthusiasts followed Ruser’s lead and used Strava’s map to highlight military facilities or activities in Africa, Ukraine, Taiwan and the Middle East.

A Pentagon spokesman was quoted in news reports that the US Defense Department was reviewing its policies on smartphones and other wireless technologies in the wake of the news. The US military has a policy for personnel to turn off location sharing in sensitive areas, although it may have given some mixed signals because it distributed Fitbits to service members in a pilot project aimed at reducing obesity.

Strava is a social media site that allows athletes to connect with each other and share information about their workouts, but the company allows users who want privacy to turn off location-sharing signals to prevent the tracking of movements. In September 2017, it updated its heat map to include three trillion GPS points, a billion activities and 27 billion kilometres of running, biking, swimming and other activities by its global users.

Ruser is fascinated with mapping software and techniques to suss out information about military bases and other facilities in the Middle East that don’t obviously appear on most maps.

He also has been very interested in Syria, both because of its constantly changing political dynamics and warfare, and well-developed infrastructure of disseminating information on social media about conditions on the ground. Ruser belongs to group chats and Twitter feeds that follow Syrian activities.

He just put the two together while on a family vacation in Thailand. He found an internet link to the Strava map, wondered what it would show in Syria and noticed most of the country was dark but lit up around a few isolated facilities that Ruser knew were US military bases. Military facilities show up more clearly in remote or desert areas on Strava’s heat map because those areas are nearly completely dark.

Ruser posted the information online and then removed it as he debated the possible security implications about making the revelation public. Ultimately, the information was spread by others from his initial posting.

“The map itself isn’t too acutely dangerous” because the information is general and already exists in the public domain, he said. “I see it more as a wake-up call. You need to be careful about how individual technology can aggregate into risks that no one set out to create.”

In the wake of all the news reports, Ruser has been invited to speak to government officials about Strava’s map as well as the use of open sources of data. He’s not sure whether his career path will take him into the intelligence services or government agencies.

“Everyone assumes I’m a cyber expert. I’m really not,” he said. “I just know mapping technology well, though.”

Related website: Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team