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The Mitchell Centre for Social Network Analysis

Hacker in a hoodie

Covert networks

What is a covert network?

A covert network is a social network which has one or many elements of secrecy about it.

Network members may try and keep their identities secret (as with criminal organisations); the network may form around activities which have to be kept secret because they are illegal or dangerous (such as covert social movements like the Suffragettes or spies), or for other reasons.

Although a lot of work in this area focuses on terrorist and criminal networks, we are interested in all types of secret networks.

These could include Freemasons, needle-sharing drug users, groups of people with unusual sexual practices, protest movements like Critical Mass, or many others.

Why study covert networks?

Covert networks are objects of study for researchers, politicians, policymakers, and many other groups. Because politicians and law enforcement agencies need to minimise the risk to the population from criminal and terrorist groups, much of the work in the area has been about the structure and disruption of these types of networks.

Many of the theoretical claims made about covert networks are drawn from work on these types of networks.

For example, it is claimed that networks have to be organised so as to facilitate the efficient achievement of their aims (efficiency) but this demand is often overridden by their concern to keep their identities, activities and connections hidden (secrecy), a trade off which shapes a network in quite specific ways.

However, although all covert networks are assumed to be secret, exactly what, by whom, from whom and other such issues are not directly addressed in the contemporary literature. This is a significant weakness of it (Crossley, Edwards 2010).

One must reach far back into the history of social science to find any substantive discussion of covertness, and this work is inevitably limited because dated (eg Simmel 1906, Erikson 1981).

This project aims to address some of these issues.

We will:

  • collate existing theories about covert networks;
  • compile an archive of  relevant and meaningful covert network data for researching and testing these theories;
  • develop and test new methods to analyse, and theorise about covert networks.