Understanding the Dataverse: Beirut Explosion and the future of Intelligence Collection/Analysis | Charles Duelfer

Understanding the Dataverse: Beirut Explosion and the future of Intelligence Collection/Analysis

As a thought experiment to see what’s coming in intelligence collection and analytics, consider the forensics associated with the recent Beirut disaster.

The event itself was obviously detected instantly by witnesses all over the city.  And instantly, decision makers needed to know:  What was it?  Who caused it?  Terrorists?  State actors?  Will there be follow-on threats?  Are there pending risks to US citizens/interests? 

With emerging capabilities for continuous global surveillance in various spectra, we are approaching a world where, for any given geo-spatial spot, data stores can be intensively analyzed forensically. Moreover with artificial intelligence methods, such troves of data can be searched to find meaning that will answer the immediate questions—such as accountability.  In essence, machines can answer the natural human questions, “Tell be everything relevant about this point and event regarding what, who and why?”  Evolving artificial intelligence searching all the databases on the planet will derive answers regarding correlations that humans could not.  In fact, such analytics will surface relevant questions that were left unasked.  And the answers will be out there in the expanding “Dataverse“. 

Current and historical data on everything is accumulating in the planet’s data farms.  Space-based sensors, both commercial and government are proliferating for imagery as well as infrared and other spectra—and the capacity to store and access such data is proliferating.  Ship

Imagery and audio from the millions of cellphones around the planet offer another surveillance tool.  The proliferation of public and private surveillance cameras has created another obvious data trove.

The location of cellphones all over the planet can theoretically be collected and stored.  When an event of interest occurs how are individual ISP’s (people with cellphones) moving about?  Were there anomalous movements beforehand or afterward?

As more automobiles become directly linked to the Internet of things, movement of all autos can be analyzed with an eye toward forensic analysis.

Imagine all the sources of data that are being collected and stored in the data farms scattered over the planet and then imagine being able to, in essence, run the tape backwards to see how the people and things got to the geo-spatial point where something happened. 

In the Beirut harbor case, how did the material accumulate at the point of explosion?  Incrementally over years?   Who were the people associated with the deliveries?  Shipping data and ship patterns now routinely collected and stored can be searched. (Even for the mildly curious.  I noticed David Geffen was anchored off Islesboro, Maine for the past couple nights.  His 139-meter “Rising Sun” yacht squawking identifiable ship identification (AIS) data.)   

And, of course masses of financial records are searchable.  Imagine if you knew where every dollar in the world was and could monitor them?  It’s not such a huge leap.

Consider Beirut again, were there any uncorrelated financial transactions whereby someone with advance knowledge might seek to profit (as was the case before the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea)?

Plume and chemical analysis of the explosion can be matched against collections of such data for explosions all over the planet.  Widespread spectroscopic data will grow. Staring sensors for agriculture purposes will find other uses.

The data are out there.  The analytic tools that can sort and look for meaning in the data are evolving rapidly.  Critical to dominating the coming Dataverse are two things. One is access to the data.  In the first generation of the Internet, the US had access (we built the original systems) and could see email traffic…a big leap forward.  Google did the same commercial for commercial purposes.

In the coming generation, access to the Dataverse will be controlled by those who create the channels into and through it.  This is why the issues of Chinese infrastructure plans for 5G and their extraordinary investment in AI are critical.

The second necessity is massive computing power. Quantum computing is vital. Our future depends upon it for both security and economic reasons. 

China may have been able to answer the questions about Beirut before anyone else.  And, as things evolve, they may be able to anticipate more…. not just do forensic analysis.  These are long-term existential drivers that US leadership needs to consider and take concrete actions.   We are not ahead of the curve.

This entry was posted in China, Cyber Threat, Financial Wars, Industrial Policy, Intelligence, NSA, Space, Ukraine. Bookmark the permalink.

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