The New York Times Magazine had a piece today on network theory and homeland security written by Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the sigint exposÃ© Chatter. The article looks at network theory’s role in homeland security and intelligence activities and its potential benefits and limitations as a tool to fight terror.
From the article:
Recent debates about the National Security Agency’s warrantless-eavesdropping program have produced two very different pictures of the operation. Whereas administration officials describe a carefully aimed “terrorist surveillance program,” press reports depict a pervasive electronic net ensnaring thousands of innocent people and few actual terrorists. Could it be that both the administration and its critics are right? One way to reconcile these divergent accounts â€” and explain the administration’s decision not to seek warrants for the surveillance â€” is to examine a new conceptual paradigm that is changing how America’s spies pursue terrorists: network theory.
During the last decade, mathematicians, physicists and sociologists have advanced the scientific study of networks, identifying surprising commonalities among the ways airlines route their flights, people interact at cocktail parties and crickets synchronize their chirps. In the increasingly popular language of network theory, individuals are “nodes,” and relationships and interactions form the “links” binding them together; by mapping those connections, network scientists try to expose patterns that might not otherwise be apparent. Researchers are applying newly devised algorithms to vast databases â€” one academic team recently examined the e-mail traffic of 43,000 people at a large university and mapped their social ties. Given the difficulty of identifying elusive terror cells, it was only a matter of time before this new science was discovered by America’s spies.
The article goes on to discuss the potential ways in which network theory is being used in the war on terror, focusing on two distinct activities:
- Pattern analysis: figuring out what information to filter and where allocate intelligence resources (also referred to as the “needle in a haystack” problem).
- Link analysis: finding connections between “known” suspects and organizations and other people or entities.
Keefe finds both pattern analysis and link analysis to be problematic, but he seems to hold out more hope for the latter.
I often feel like the debate over these types of technologies is overly polarized today. At one extreme, you have people in government and industry who have oversold its potential promise; the recent proselytizers of Able Danger seem to fall into this category. At the other extreme, you have people who summon Orwell’s ghost every time that the government proposes a new homeland security or intelligence activity that involves data collection or analysis. The Administration has certainly not helped its cause by being overly secretive about projects, most recently with the NSA domestic surveillance revelations. But in its (partial) defense, the one time that it tried to do a project in the open, and build privacy into it – Total Information Awareness – it was hammered by members of Congress and advocacy groups.
Keefe’s article is a valuable contribution to what we need today in the public debate: a serious discussion about the potential benefits and limitations of these technologies. They are certainly no panacea for fighting terror, but it would be equally incorrect to issue a blanket assertion about their uselessness. And we shouldn’t assume that the technology is static: the science of network theory will certainly continue to advance in the coming years, and likely deliver applications and benefits that we cannot foresee today.
For more on this topic, I recommend the 2004 CSIS report “Data Mining and Data Analysis for Counterterrorism” and the Congressional Research Service report on “Data Mining and Homeland Security.”