The Role of Big Data in Tackling Terrorism

 Author(s): , Posted on March 3rd, 2015

Following recent events in Copenhagen and Paris, the threat of terrorism is again at the forefront of people’s minds and authorities’ agendas. The threat is present both in the physical and the virtual world. Thanks to the Internet, terrorist communication and content is now more accessible than ever before, which poses the risk of young people becoming radicalised online.

European authorities are working to prevent this but they face huge challenges. These include access to intelligence and the ability to turn huge data volumes from multiple sources into actionable insights.

Another challenge is that each country’s legislation on what can be shared with other countries and used in court is different. In the US, President Obama recently signed an Executive Order aimed at urging countries to share cyber threat intelligence with each other and the US government to combat cyber theft and terrorism. But, there are issues surrounding intelligence sharing – protecting the individual around the intelligence and the act of sharing intelligence between countries. It is important that authorities establish a circle of trust – although the issue with this is how to ensure that data won’t be compromised. Governments need to strike the right balance between data protection and freedom of information.

As huge amounts of data on potential terrorist behaviour is gathered, it is becoming increasingly important for intelligence agencies to analyse it in near-real-time. Data sources include behaviours such as involvement in extreme online conversations, associating with others of an extremist disposition, withdrawing from mainstream activities and events, travel to areas of conflict and unusual purchases. Terrorists may sometimes pry on vulnerable and impressionable young people and use their experiences of racial abuse and profiling to turn them against those from different religions or countries. The challenge counterterrorism forces have is linking these different behaviours, and analysing them to identify patterns using data held across multiple disparate systems.

To link vast amounts of data, highly effective big data analytics must be implemented to find patterns to better inform policy makers of terrorist actions and protect the public. Predictive data analytics is also a growing area of counterterrorism operations. The goal is to empower agencies to identify suspicious patterns of behaviour and spot risks before incidents happen.

But at present many agencies aren’t able to make sense of the wealth of data they hold. In some instances, relationships around groups that conspire aren’t picked up. For instance the recent case of the three London schoolgirls who are believed to have travelled to Syria to join Isis could possibly have been prevented. One of the girls had correspondence on Twitter with a girl already known to authorities for visiting Syria to join Isis. This is something that should have been picked up before they left the country.

An effective solution that has been developed operates on a POLE-type data model (Person, Object, Location and Event) for the storage and recording of incident and entities. The POLE model allows entities to be recorded in the system once. The recorded entities, however, can be linked to other entities and events as many times as is necessary, building up a complete profile and network of associations of the monitored persons. This can be accessed quickly and automatically updated in real-time.

While information and intelligence sharing between countries is not as seamless as it could be, technologies now exist that can facilitate this intelligence-led investigating, enhancing data analysis and collaboration, and allowing agencies to better prevent and detect threats to national security.

The key areas where counterterrorism needs to focus on is data sharing in a responsible way, adopting the right technologies for predictive and real-time analytics and using this to take actionable insights from the copious amounts of data produced. Taking these steps will ensure that authorities are able to keep up with terrorists online and offline.

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