26 March, 2007

Spotted: shocks coming our way

Singapore has devised an early-warning system that could help detect looming terror attacks and financial crises. Michael Sheridan , Sunday Times (UK).reports

BRITISH researchers are working with Singapore on the world’s most advanced computer system to detect security threats and foil terrorist plots.

The model being developed by some of the finest computer brains could become the standard for governments and big companies anxious to identify threats of all kinds and take action to counter them.

It uses the power of the internet to help analysts sort through millions of pieces of data and collaborate across different bureaucracies, challenging traditional methods of risk assessment.

Singapore’s leaders fear that their prosperous, but tiny, city-state of 4m people is vulnerable. They decided to act after observing the September 11 attacks, the Bali bombings, the outbreaks of Sars and bird flu and the 2004 Asian tsunami. So they scoured the planet for the sharpest minds to help.

Last week they lifted a veil of secrecy around the system at a conference of intelligence and technology experts, who watched a demonstration of how the system could identify one suspicious ship among the 1,000 vessels that pass every day through the straits south of Singapore.

The aim is to detect what experts call “weak signals” — the sort of detail missed by security services who failed to notice Al-Qaeda terrorists training to fly planes or British Muslims buying chemicals that could be used to make explosives.

“I’m hoping Singapore could be an incubator for this,” said John Poindexter, who in the 1980s was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan and is now a technology consultant.

“When I was in the White House I was dismayed at the lack of a systematic and methodological approach to handling information. This gives us the tools for collaboration so that you can bring in diverse opinions and diverse data. Diversity is really, really important,” he said.

Poindexter was one of a core group assembled by the head of Singapore’s civil service, Peter Ho, to create the system.

They brought in Dave Snowden, regarded as a leading thinker in applying complexity theory to management science, as principal consultant.

For straitlaced Singapore, the bearded, irreverent Snowden, who heads a company called Cognitive Edge, cuts an unusual figure.

“Frankly, he was quite incomprehensible,” said Ho, recalling their first discussion. “Nevertheless, I dimly glimpsed through the cloud of academic jargon and the Welsh accent something that I sensed was important.

“We were operating in complex and chaotic domains where the first to discern patterns out of chaos would have a competitive advantage,” said Ho.

The Singaporeans also realised that scenario planning — still the conventional British government method for rehearsing for crises — was out of date.

Their response is a system that looks for wild cards, chance and anomalous behaviour to detect the unpredictable. It scans hundreds of databases to “connect the dots”.

Last week, Snowden enthralled his audience of bureaucrats and spooks with his explanation of how the system uses chaos theory to analyse threats at a time when terrorists themselves are skilled users of technology.

Singapore calls the system Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning. Rupert Lewis, who heads the British government’s own programme inside the Department of Trade and Industry, admitted that the main problem with horizon scanning is its name, which puts people off. But he said that Uni-lever, British Gas and the CBI are already using the technology, which also has applications for financial markets. Other companies examining the programme include Lehman Brothers, Shell, BP, Standard Chartered, Lloyds TSB, Rio Tinto and Price Waterhouse Coopers, said Lewis.

The Singapore model unveiled last week employs techniques similar to those used in derivatives trading to accumulate data and predict outcomes.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the jargon, the concept has ignited enthusiasm among some of the smartest brains in the cyber-elite.

Jaron Lanier, the California computer scientist famous for coining the term “virtual reality”, said the Singapore system seemed the most mathematically sophisticated and carefully thought-out of its kind.

Lanier, who works with Second Life, the hugely popular virtual world website, said information technology had transformed security threats. “In commerce, we don’t have to know where to focus, we can simply enjoy the spectacle of multitudes of entrepreneurs placing bets all over the place,” he said. “When it comes to security, however, we need to be better at guessing than the ‘entrepreneurs’.”

Oxford Analytica, the consultancy, is already using its global content to participate in the programme with the Singapore government.

“We are hoping to build more business on it,” said executive director Michael Bruce, who was showing off Oxford Analytica’s assessments of a series of grim scenarios — from war with Iran to the collapse of Pakistan.

A Singapore government background document said “transnational terrorism, financial shocks and supply-chain fragility” made it all the more urgent to break conventional ways of thinking. Many jihad-ists dominate the ‘battle space’ of the internet and use it for purposes such as the training, recruiting, funding, intelligence gathering, planning and execution of their attacks,” it said. “Without anticipating the nature of the threats they face, governments and policymakers cannot react astutely,” it warned.

Singapore is committing funds to open an experimentation centre in August to work with industry partners like Hewlett Packard and IBM, foreign government agencies and universities.

For his part, Poindexter said he wants to see the American government adopt the system. “You need high-level vision,” said Poindexter, “because it’s not just the risks — it’s the opportunities, too.”



Blogger zewt said...

hi there,
thank you for your words of comfort. i truly appreciate it. take care and keep blogging. very interesting read you have here.

March 27, 2007 11:20 AM  

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