December 24, 2012
Credit: Credit: U.S. Army
Sharon Weinberger Washington
With the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Obama administration officials have fought a slew of accusations blaming them for not foreseeing the attack, or not acting in time to protect personnel.
One counter-argument has focused on the basic assertion that there were no clear indications that an attack would occur, a point reiterated recently by the U.S. government's intelligence czar. “If people do not emit or discuss their behavior, it's hard to find out what they are going to do,” Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper said at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation's annual forum in Orlando, Fla., in October.
Yet at the same conference where Clapper made his remarks, companies selling software to the defense and intelligence community were trying to do just that: help anticipate attacks such as the one that took place in Benghazi. “There were indications that there would be a protest in front of the U.S. [Consulate] in Libya at 4 p.m. the day before it took place,” claims Andrew Doumitt, the vice president of business development for TerraGo Technologies, a company that makes software that allows users to sift through multiple data sources, including social media, based on specific geographic areas.
In fact, TerraGo's software is, in many ways, custom-suited to looking at something like a potential attack on a U.S. base or embassy because it can trawl through millions of social media postings and flag information based on a specific location. “Let's say that we wanted to do a buffer zone around the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a, [Yemen]” says Doumitt. “We can set up an alert; we can start by seeing what's being written about in this area.”
The software may not indicate exactly which events may spiral out of control, such as what was alleged at one point in Benghazi, but it can provide a red flag. “You essentially have a way to monitor a place against social media, news and blogs; you can much more specifically react and monitor a whole lot more sources for trigger terms,” says Doumitt.
More than just a novelty, such software is part of a growing government and private sector market for data-mining that combines open-source information with more traditional data collection. The defense and intelligence community is increasingly using such tools, and In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital arm, has invested in a number of companies working on these tools, including TerraGo.
While such software may have once been seen as a niche area, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. military is trying to disrupt insurgent networks and locate roadside bombs, has moved this work into high demand. It has also sparked a public battle over the Pentagon's investment in the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A), the military system used for combining and sorting through intelligence collected in the field.