FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Distributed Network to Fight Terrorism

Can distributed mobile technology help groups fight terrorism? Two researchers who study group dynamics believe it can.

"Global Neighborhood Watch," a concept developed by Bill McKelvey of UCLA and Max Boisot of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, operates on the premise that groups carrying mobile sensing devices can detect threats such as explosives more readily than central access points. It also relies on groups' innate ability to process and filter abstract information. A distributed, "socio-computational" approach can "connect the dots" to help authorities better see patterns of an attack.

"Our 'distributed' socio-computational approach gets around silo thinking," McKelvey and Boisot wrote. Silos extract information and meaning from data and then pass it up to the next level. "That is, dots [data] collected at the base get 'joined' or linked . . . by intelligence analysts in the middle of the hierarchy before being 'assessed' " at the top, they wrote.

By contrast, the distributed neighborhood watch, and its attendant computing power, focuses less on collecting many dots and more on establishing meaningful relationships and patterns from them. "Assessment does not thereby disappear, but it now operates across different levels," the professors wrote. The watch members help find the most promising patterns, and the intelligence center and government officials select the ones upon which to act.

One example given is of two individuals standing adjacent to an unattended backpack. Both carry mobile phones that can sense trace amounts of explosives; both devices react to the pack, and send signals to alert a central authority.

The clear downside to the plan is that it creates a Big Brother environment, with neighbors effectively spying on neighbors. To that end, and in light of the recent London bombings, communities will have to make a choice between respect for privacy and greater security.

McKelvey and Boisot have submitted their idea to the CIA.

Sources: GovExec.com, Futurismic