18 October 2011

Surowiecki Meets the Intel Community

GMU is looking into crowdsourcing intelligence, following a trend primarily encapsulated in The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Maybe you've got a hunch Kim Jong Il's regime in North Korea has seen its final days, or that the Ebola virus will re-emerge somewhere in the world in the next year.
Your educated guess may be just as good as an expert's opinion. Statistics have long shown that large crowds of average people frequently make better predictions about unknown events, when their disparate guesses are averaged out, than any individual scholar — a phenomenon known as the wisdom of crowds.
Now the nation's intelligence community, with the help of university researchers and regular folks around the country, is studying ways to harness and improve the wisdom of crowds. The research could one day arm policymakers with information gathered by some of the same methods that power Wikipedia and social media.
In a project that is part competition and part research study, George Mason professors Charles Twardy and Kathryn Laskey are assembling a team on the Internet of more than 500 forecasters who make educated guesses about a series of world events, on everything from disease outbreaks to agricultural trends to political patterns.

The thing is, this isn't new. John Poindexter had a very similar initiative back in 2002-2003 that was canceled because of a variety of bad PR and a whole lot of noisemakers looking to yell at the Bush Administration for pretty much everything (up to, and including, sunspots). The Terrorism Futures Market was scary-accurate, but torpedoed Poindexter's career because it looked like someone was making light of potential attacks, and Congress just couldn't lay off.

Dr. John M. Poindexter, director of the Dept. of Defense's Information Awareness Office (IAO), is expected to resign within the next few weeks according to senior Pentagon officials. Since joining the IAO in January of 2002, Poindexter has been an ongoing source of controversy.

The IAO is an agency of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. The goal of the agency is to gather intelligence on possible terrorist activities through electronic sources such as the Internet, telephone and fax lines.

Under Poindexter's leadership the IAO has created a firestorm of controversy with its Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which seeks to capture the "information signature" of people in order to track potential terrorists and criminals. Now renamed as the Terrorist Information Awareness program, critics have called it a domestic spy program and the Senate has temporarily blocked funding for the project.

Earlier this week, Poindexter again came under fire for the IAO's latest proposal to predict terrorist events through the online selling of "futures" in terrorist attacks. The Senate again intervened to block the program.

The Policy Analysis Market (PAM), the first phase of the project, was already online with funding from a federal grant and was scheduled to begin a beta testing on today. The Defense Department had also requested $8 million for its "Futures Markets Applied to Prediction" (FutureMAP) initiative, which would expand on the Policy Analysis Market's terror-wagering scheme.

But late on Monday afternoon, Senators Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) held a press conference to denounce the program. By Tuesday, Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, announced he had contacted the IAO and had been assured the program would be discontinued. By Tuesday afternoon, the site had been pulled off the Internet.

PAM was a joint venture between DARPA; the Economist Intelligence Unit, the business information arm of The Economist Group, publisher of The Economist; and Net Exchange, which was responsible for design, development and operation of the PAM trading system.

PAM was designed to much like other financial markets, with investors buying "futures" in events they think are likely to happen, and selling off futures as they believe events become less likely to happen. Some of the possibilities the PAM website offered for sale were the overthrow of the King of Jordan, the assassination of Yasser Arafat, and a missile attack by North Korea.

Bidders would profit if the events for which they hold futures -- including government coups, assassinations and missile attacks -- occur.

"Spending taxpayer dollars to create terrorism betting parlors is as wasteful as it is repugnant. The American people want the Federal government to use its resources enhancing our security, not gambling on it," Wyden and Dorgan wrote in a letter to Poindexter.

The program was so toxic that even Republicans were running from it.

The program, called the Futures Markets Applied to Prediction (FutureMAP), would have involved investors betting small amounts of money that a particular event -- a terrorist attack or assassination -- would happen.

It has been part of the Total Information Awareness program under retired Adm. John Poindexter, a prominent figure in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration.

His current boss, DARPA director Anthony Tether, was asked whether Poindexter would keep his job. "I don't see why not," he said as he left meetings on Capitol Hill.

Republicans moved quickly to distance themselves from the program, which was supposed to start Friday.

"We're going to recommend to the secretary of defense not to use such funds as he has available ... to implement the initial stages of this program," said Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee.

"I just got off the phone with the head of DARPA, and we mutually agreed that this thing should be stopped," Warner said at a hearing on military promotions.

Tether agreed. When reporters asked him later whether the program was dead, he replied, "Oh yes, absolutely."

Before the Pentagon pulled the plug on the program, it generated fierce criticism, particularly from Democrats.

So it's going to be interesting to see if GMU gets anything worthwhile out of this. On one hand, you've got the internet pajama brigade who could certainly spam-bomb this project and turn it into a hijacked analysis for the Occupy Wall Street And Accomplish Nothing movement. On the other hand, if it becomes an actual useful tool by limiting access to people who actually know something, it has the danger of becoming a second coming of FutureMAP, and you wonder if it'll survive budget scrutiny any better this time than last time.

By: Brant


Anonymous said...

Lets hope DARPA gets their shit together this time around

-- Mike P

Anonymous said...

I meant to say "IARPA" . sorry

-- Mike P