The dust has largely settled from a failed attempt to detonate explosives aboard a Northwest airlines over the holiday. There were plenty of people talking about what went wrong. That’s easy, hindsight is 20/20. The thing is very few people are talking about things we can do. The only ideas anyone comes up with are always the same old freedom infringing measures that result in theater, not real security. Well, I have an idea of what we can do, and it can help against a lot more than just terrorism.
Mark Maunder suggests we crowdsource the terrorism fight. He’s on the right track, fundamentally speaking. Our government is clearly incapable of intelligently combating a non-military threat. It must be the citizens themselves who help to stop terrorism. However, Mark’s specific suggestions are not all that great. None of them would stop a terrorist with a working explosive device. The people were only saved by the stupidity of the terrorist. There was nothing they could have done to save themselves from an intelligent attacker.
And that is the one thing that gives me hope. So many of the terrorists are just complete morons. Terrorism isn’t really rocket science. Just about any reasonably good engineer could cause massive amounts of destruction. I can personally come up with any number of plans to cause a very large amount of destruction. The reason we are save is because these smart people are smart enough to have jobs, and money, and such. When you’re smart enough to be a good terrorist, you’re smart enough not to be a terrorist in the first place.
Despite this, we can not rest easily. Even morons who fail most of the time are dangerous. They did succeed in 2001, in the London underground, in Oklahoma City, and many other times throughout history. They will fail often due to their lack of brains, but they will succeed sometimes, and it is those sometimes we need to prevent.
Start thinking about ways to prevent terrorist attacks. What do you think of? You think of physical defenses. Locking doors, searching people and bags, detecting explosives and weapons, these are all physical defenses. They all try to stop an attack right before, or as, it is about to happen. They also don’t work. If someone has a bomb at an airport, they can just set it off in the security line. Heck, trains have almost no security whatsoever. As long as you have a situation where there are many people together, it is next to impossible to physically prevent a terrorist attack. Even if everyone is on the lookout, and the crowd reports suspicious activities, that isn’t going to stop anything.
What you need to do is prevent terrorism way in advance. Intelligence is absolutely the most effective weapon against terrorism. If you know that a terrorist is going to go on a shooting spree tomorrow, you can have police arrest him today. If you know that someone bought a whole bunch of fertilizer, in the winter, and they aren’t a farmer, and it’s for a crop that doesn’t grow in the area, that they are probably up to something.
You might think this information is difficult and expensive to collect, parse, and act upon. You’re right, it is. But this is exactly where the crowdsourcing comes in. We need to crowdsource the intelligence to pre-empt terrorism. Let ordinary citizens keep a watchful eye about them. Then we can pool, share, and filter to turn the information into intelligence. Then the authorities can use that to pre-empt villainy.
This kind of crowdsourcing can work, but you can already see it’s a minefield. Untrained citizens are not that great at collecting intelligence. He who has a hammer sees nails everywhere. If you’re on the lookout for terrorism all the time, suddenly everything looks like terrorism. Is that a homeless guy, or is it a disguise? Is he hiding a bomb in his shopping cart? Is that guy really a utilities worker, or is he putting a bomb in the subway? What’s that weird device he has? That computer guy’s screen is weird, is he hacking?
Is there another kind of crowdsourcing we can do that is actually useful, and doesn’t require as much training? I think there is. We can find terrorists while sitting on our asses, on the Internet. For real.
I assume people reading this are fairly technologically competent. If you wanted to get illegal things online, like pirated media, guns, drugs, child porn, etc. do you think you could do it? It’s quite trivial. Yet, law enforcement agencies can’t seem to figure it out. If my only job was to find illegal activity on the Internet, I could have people arrested faster than they could be processed.
Do terrorists use the Internet just like pirates and pedophiles? You bet they do! Our recent terrorist Mutallab posted all over the Internet. He wasn’t particularly secretive either. He openly displayed his unhappiness and fundamentalist beliefs. It was a textbook case of a terrorist to be, right out in the open where anyone could see it. The same sort of thing goes not just for terrorists, but school shootings, and other criminals. A great many of these people posted their craziness all over the web before they acted.
These terrorists are not ultra smart super villains like Doctor Doom. They’re mostly just really sad individuals who reach the breaking point. They post their plans openly. They’re not hatching an evil scheme in secret, they’re crying for help. By searching Google, newsgroups, IRC, and Facebook we can find the next Mutallab or Seung-Hui Cho before they strike. The authorities can’t even figure out BitTorrent, but we can. We can find these sad people on the ‘net and then do something to make sure they never fall so far as to actually try something.
You’re probably sitting at your computer right now, and you’ve had enough free time to read this blog post. You probably also have enough free time to do some searching. Go out there, and see if you can find people on the web who are actually likely to be real terrorists in the making. Maybe you can save lives without getting out of bed.