Stephen Baker

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Anti-terror software glitches?

January 2, 2010News

As I  was researching my book, Jeff Jonas described for me how a government data failure preceded the 9-11 attacks. Different branches of the government had access to information about several of the terrorists. People on the danger list were renting cars and hotel rooms under their own names. But the government lacked the means to search through this data, matching the names with those on their lists. Jonas had developed software called NORA specifically for such matching work, and in 2005 he sold his company, Systems Research and Development, to IBM.

Jonas often cannot provide details, but he works closely with national security agencies, and the government buys this data-matching software. So my question: Why didn't the software match the data of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of attempted terrorism on the Christmas flight to Detroit?

Yesterday's New York Times editorial seems to misunderstand the challenge. It says that the National Counterterrorism Center should be "correlating data so any pattern emerges." No doubt they're interested in patterns. But in this case, it wasn't mathematical analysis that was missing, but simply connecting dots. That's NORA's specialty. Then the editorial says, "Long before Mr. Abdulmutallab was allowed to board that flight to Detroit, some analyst should have punched “Nigerian, Abdulmutallab, Yemen, visa, plot” into the system."

Again, I think that's relying too much on humans. If these software systems work, they should find those connections and issue automatic alerts. Jonas describes what he calls Perpetual Analytics in this post.

In a system designed to handle perpetual analytics, as data changes in source systems (e.g., an employee updates his address) a message is fired off to the analytics engine and this new observation is integrated into the collective knowledge.  In this way, the “data finds the data”.  Should this incremental knowledge result in insight (e.g., the employee is related to an open fraud investigation) such discovery can be published to the appropriate user (e.g., in this case the fraud investigator).

My question to Jeff: Is the government running this software?

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