Monday, September 25, 2006

Simulating terrorism

There's an interesting article in this month's Spectrum on using computer simulations to help model or predict terrorist behaviour.

"Different forms of the software are aimed at military officials, who are already using such programs to train officers and troops, and at intelligence analysts, who are finding that the shadowy, shifting organizations they must study are so complex and unstable that keeping track of all the variables without computer help is increasingly unrealistic. The hope is that one day an intelligence analyst sitting at a desk thousands of miles from Jakarta or Jalalabad will be able to make preternaturally good guesses about who is likely to commit violent acts, and to advise policy-makers on specific ways to prevent an attack...

Such work, concentrated in the United States and sustained by tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in funding by various intelligence organizations, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, points to a new era in training and intelligence analysis. The experts developing these systems are reticent about exactly how their programs are being used. But outside observers say it is a good bet that software designed to identify the critical people in a terrorist organization will be used—if it hasn’t been already—to draw up lists that prioritize which people should be killed or captured so as to do maximum damage to the organization.

That worries some experts, who caution that even when the models are fed by the best available intelligence, they should never be trusted to determine, by themselves, whether someone should live or die. “A simulation is by its nature speculative, and you don’t go out and kill people based on speculation,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, in Washington, D.C...

50 percent of U.S. analysts have less than five years’ experience, according to some estimates. And yet despite all the turnover, Johnston noted a lingering tendency among analysts to look for information to confirm the prevailing hypothesis in their groups or sections rather than challenge it and risk alienating colleagues and superiors. Indeed, it is considered taboo to change “the corporate product line”: if the president or his national security team receives an official opinion from an intelligence agency and that agency later radically revises it, trust, status, and ultimately funding are jeopardized."

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