Big Data and our security infrastructure’s big blind spot

Fighting insurgents through bigger, better data collection seems like a good idea on its face, but with a government that has trouble moving from filing cabinets to digital directories, it opens a window for shoddy contracting and missed opportunities.

Michael Daly has a look at just those missed opportunities, noting Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a regular reader of al Qaeda’s online Inspire magazine.

Over lunch a few years ago, noted security researcher Mikko Hypponen once told me and a group of other technology journalists that downloading the magazine was a pretty good way to gain the attention of America’s national security infrastructure, but apparently he overestimated: Despite Tsarnaev’s reading habits,warnings from Russia, and a vastly expanded surveillance apparatus, the Tsarnaev were still able to successfully attack America, apparently with little or no outside help.


So what are we getting instead? It sounds like the same thing big enterprises everywhere get when they have open checkbooks and no sound strategy: Ballooning budgets full of overhyped PowerPoint presentations and technology that may or may not work, but do a good job meeting the fantasy checklists of executives eager to show paper progress.

And there are plenty of entrepreneurial types willing to help part taxpayers from their money. After the Boston Marathon bombings, the New York times and I both profiled Buzzient, which Scott Kirsner took to task for self-promotion in the wake of a tragedy:

’’You also had people sharing ‘We Love Boston’ images that happened to include their company’s logo (whoops, quick apology), and entrepreneurs showing up on television and in print to tout their software’s ability to find clues to a crime amid social media chatter. Buzzient founder Timothy B. Jones endlessly tweeted about his Bloomberg TV and New York Times press hits last week; the start-up, once based in Boston, now seems to operate out of Kennebunkport, Maine.’’

After speaking with Jones, I filed a request with the Boston Police Department for the social media reports Buzzient had generated for them.


Their response:

In response to your request, a comprehensive search of records was performed and the Department does not have any documents in its possession, custody or control that are responsive to your request.

I worry that, as we work to quickly get on track for a world of distributed threats and digital attacks, our government is all too often taking an easy detour that gives us the same benefits: Nothing.

The price to our security, freedom, and tax dollars is too high for that.

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