Researchers at four US universities will begin sifting the web for early signs of terrorist activity as a result of US federal government contracts.

The US government is funding the $10.2 million (£5.2m) project to research methods for detecting online terrorism activity between Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; the University of Southern California; the University of Illinois; and the University of Pittsburgh.

In July 2006 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the three-year grant to the four universities to advance information analysis and computational technologies.

Fred Roberts, director of the Centre for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science at Rutgers, said researchers hope to develop algorithms that will find patterns and relationships in such public sources as news stories and blogs to determine authorship, even when a writer tries to hide his identity. Researchers' methods will include mathematics graph theory, dynamic data analysis, optimisation, "machine learning" and statistical analysis. Each university has its own set of partners; for example, Rutgers' collaborators include AT&T Labs, Bell Labs and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Privacy concerns about the research project have been voiced in the blogosphere. ShadowMonkey, a blogger who has a "DHS Watch," questioned the project after it was announced in July: "If you're writing on the Net using a pseudonym, are you going to be placed on a watch list?"

Roberts said, "protecting privacy is part of the research agenda". Safeguards will include anonymising data, using only publicly available sources and adhering to data handling protocols created by a privacy officer.

Besides privacy, the project will tackle many challenges along the way, such as the vast amount of information with changing sources and how quickly information flows over the Web. In order to evaluate potential terrorist activity, the researchers must develop technologies to rate consistency and reliability of the sources of information. Researchers are currently finalizing contracts with DHS.