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DARPA issues balloon-hunting $40k 'Network Challenge'

Distributed natter-mob spy legions at the ready

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Famed US military bonkers-boffinry bureau DARPA, in order to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the internet, has issued a zeitgeisty "Network Challenge". The first person or team to correctly locate ten large red balloons scattered across the USA will win $40,000.

“It is fitting to announce this competition on the anniversary of the day that the first message was sent over the ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet,” said DARPA chief Dr Regina Dugan at a conference celebrating the anniversary yesterday. (DARPA doesn't have any truck with the alternative 40th birthdate in September.)

“In the 40 years since this breakthrough," continued Dugan, "the Internet has become an integral part of society and the global economy. The DARPA Network Challenge explores the unprecedented ability of the Internet to bring people together to solve tough problems.”

It would seem that DARPA expect this challenge to be won by social networking as much as by electronics, with the agency saying that the compo "will explore the role the Internet and social networking plays in timely communication, wide area team-building and urgent mobilization required to solve broad scope, time-critical problems".

The ten 8-foot red weather balloons will be moored in locations "visible from nearby roadways" across the continental US during the daylight hours of 5 December only. The first registered participant to give correct latitudes and longitudes* of all ten will trouser the 40 grand.

Competitors can be of any age or nationality, but can't be US government employees or their families. One should note in the small print that the winner can be a foreigner; but "a US taxpayer identification number (eg a social security number)" is necessary to receive the cash.

We didn't see anything in there forbidding people from putting up a few 8-foot red balloons of their own on 5 December, and indeed it would seem difficult for DARPA to prevent this. Whether decoy balloons have much effect on the compo remains to be seen - entering wrong locations needn't affect the performance of a competing network of Facebook friends, Twitter followers or whatever very much. The winner is the group which finds all the bona-fide balloons first, no matter how many fakes they may discover as well.

Another obvious tactic is to simply submit an enormous list of locations, such that their arc-minute error boxes cover all US territory within sight of a road. So far there's nothing in the rules to prevent this; but DARPA reserve the right to change the rules. If they institute a limit on the number of locations that a competitor can submit, however, they may make the putting-up of decoy balloons into a more valuable tactic.

And so forth.

Full information on the competition is available from DARPA here. ®

*To within one arc-minute: you can be a bit more than a mile off and still qualify.

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