can better software help stop terrorism?

Stopping terrorism requires a tricky combination of expertise, processes and software.

Many people imagine a future where all human movements can be continually tracked and recorded and it might be possible spot a terrorist just with a ‘big data’ analysis alone. That could be unlikely (without a big erosion in civil liberties) – but meanwhile we do have a lot of data, it just also takes expertise to understand it.

Meanwhile the software systems to manage the terrorist catching process, as I understand it, are fairly rudimentary – lists of people ‘suspected of being radicalised’, e-mails from other jurisdications saying that a person of interest has just done something, and so on.

So perhaps the best chance of building a good expert + software system is one where you have software which continually analyses and manages the data available, and experts who can see data relevant to them and look for patterns – the sort a computer could never find.

We’re using the term ‘common sense’ to define skills a human has which a computer doesn’t have. Its not a very scientific term, but if you believe in human judgement of this kind you’ll accept our use of it.

The human can use their common sense to work with the data and spot things.

I am guessing securtity services probaly segment the roles of spotting terrorists with specific individuals tracking specific groups of people.

We often hear the number of people suspected of being ‘radicalised’ is too big for the manpower resources available – tracking one individual continuously cane take 20 staff members.

But if one person is tracking say 100 people by constantly looking at their electronic footprints, with whatever data is avaiable (mobile phone? passport scan? credit card?) then it all looks different.

The behaviour model of a potential terrorist might well be very different to the behaviour of anyone else (although I’m not an expert).

Perhaps what’s missing here is the right approach to building such a software system – a gap which we hope to fill.

Another observation is that perhaps security services have the same weakness with tracking terrorists as computer systems have with tracking viruses – they focus too much on entry and exit points (scan the computer program you just installed, monitor the country’s border) rather than look for patterns of activity with software already on your computer or with people already in your country.

That’s harder to do with the transactional way we usually build software, but perhaps easier to do a better job at, with the right human skills.

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