Friday, December 11, 2009

How to Run an Intelligence Network: To Catch a Terrorist

The red balloon contest, an interesting idea from DARPA and the MIT winners. As the MIT press release states:

"On Tuesday, Dec. 1, members of the MIT Media Lab’s Human Dynamics Laboratory received an e-mail with a $40,000 proposition. The U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was holding a competition that weekend: on Saturday morning, 10 large red weather balloons would be raised at undisclosed locations across the United States; the first team to use social media — like online social networks and communication systems — to determine the correct latitude and longitude of all 10 would receive $40,000."

The solution from the Media Lab was to use social networking, pay the people who built the network if they were successful and then to filter out the bad reports.

The problem was to locate all of the 10 balloons in lat and long and to do so as quickly as possible. That needed many observers.

The following questions were asked and answered:

1. What type of network works quickly? A social network using the Internet.

2. What motivates people to build a network? Money and fame. They paid every team that got a correct sighting a cumulative of $4000, thus the total $40000 went to the teams. The payment structure went to the "team" and the team leader got half, thus $2000, and then downward so that the sum was the $4000. Simple infinite sum equation. This is the Mary Kay, Tupperware, Avon school of marketing, a pyramid where everyone gets something. A tried and true approach.

3. How was the data validated? How could you trust a sighting. People lie, the make errors, they report things which are in error or not even there. The MIT report states:

"One of the questions that the lab hopes to get a quantitative handle on is how to filter out reliable and unreliable reports. Pickard says that of the balloon sightings reported through the team’s website, about half contained inaccurate data, and some of those were intentionally faked. “There were other teams who were actively trying to deceive us,” Pickard says. “We talked to them afterwards, and they said they had fun spamming us with false information.” The researchers will look for patterns that provide a kind of statistical signature for false reports. As an example, Pickard points to one of the methods the team in fact used to weed out fakes: if several balloon reports came in that specified the same general geographical area but varied slightly as to the GPS coordinates, they were likely to have come from people who’d seen the balloon firsthand but hadn’t had an opportunity to track down its precise location. When, on the other hand, several reports came in with exactly the same GPS coordinates, they were likely to have had a common source, such as a posting on the Internet, which may or may not have been reliable."

This filtering is the most important approach. Suffice it to say there are many algorithms to use but by having many eyes on the ground, and knowing that people never see the exact same thing, this approach is quite valid.

By the way, this is the way MI6 and the KGB used to function. Many eyes, each with a small payout, lots of data and filtering. Namely eyes on the ground. The thousands of invisible people, the maids, cleaning help, waiters, cab drivers, guards, stewardesses, and the like. The people we think invisible, and yet open to all sorts of information. The eyes on the ground. The US intelligence system never really bought into this, we have Billion dollar satellites and the like, not thousands of cleaning ladies with great eyes and superb filtering systems.

This is a great example of finding a low cost and real time approach to intelligence. It is a shame that this was destroyed during the Carter Administration and has never really gained currency in the US intel world. Eyes in the shadows are very powerful tools, the adversary uses them always.