The terrorists were already in Seattle, but Dave Thurman and his cybersecurity team of techno-detectives at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory didn’t know it yet.
All they had were a few anomalies in the massive amount of information they were monitoring — a spike in radiation from a ground-based detector in Pakistan, an unexplained outbreak of plague in India investigated by the World Health Organization nine months ago and a disturbing convergence of travel plans among some suspected terrorists.
“I’ll pull up Starlight to see what kind of relationships I can find,” said team member Alex Donaldson, referring to one of the lab’s sophisticated software programs.
It was all part of a techno-drama, an exercise performed in Seattle on Monday before military and government officials as part of a real effort to demonstrate how information technology — software, the Web and complex mathematics — can be used to combat terrorism.
It’s important to keep in mind that this sort of analysis – trying to extract meaningful data from a vast sea of information – will likely never provide some kind of magical “press a button and find the terrorist” solution, except perhaps in a DDR-style police state. It’s at best a tool for a broader investigation -not the means of investigation all by itself. And the ability to find the “unknown unknowns” in addition to the “known unknowns” (in Rumsfeldspeak) is uncertain. But it’s important for key homeland security stakeholders to continue to push the envelopes on these technologies, because these kinds of tools can be valuable at helping law enforcement officials at all levels to “connect the dots” and disrupt future plots and attacks.