Monday, December 14, 2009
I was discussing the DARPA Network Challenge with another participant in the contest the other day and the conclusion of our conversation led me to ask why couldn't a similar system be used to locate Osama bin Laden?
For those of you unfamiliar with this challenge, DARPA offered $40,000 to the first individual or team to identify the location of 10 large red helium balloons that DARPA had moored at various locations around the US. The contest was to go on for a week but a team from MIT won the challenge in a little less than 9 hours (for the Lessons Learned from the Mercyhurst effort, see this post).
It occurs to me that the Osama bin Laden problem is a similar one and that social networks might well be as effective in identifying his location (particularly if he is not in the region where most people seem to think he is...).
Moreover, the conditions are much the same -- only better. The reward for bin Laden is 25 million! MIT's winning system seemed to work so well (to me) because everyone in the chain got a piece of the pie. With a much bigger pie, it should work that much better.
Furthermore, there appears to be no reason not to try. Secretary Gates recently stated that there has been no good intelligence on bin Laden "in years". In addition, GEN McCrystal recently testified that he didn't think we could finally defeat Al Qaeda without capturing or killing Bin Laden.
And its not like Pakistanis and Afghanis don't use social networks. They do. Facebook and Orkut are both popular in Pakistan. If the system were optimized for cell phones, it would likely be even more effective as 49 of every 100 Pakistanis (29 of every 100 Afghanis) has a cell phone (Note: These are 2008 numbers. They are likely higher today.) Even the FATA in Pakistan has cellular service. If bin Laden is not where we think he is, then the system could be even more effective.
Using social networks allows us to tap into those people in and around bin Laden who disagree with his message or tactics or both but see no way to get their info to those who can do something about it (and frankly, even if they could, they likely see no advantage in it). It allows us to negotiate with the innocents who are victims of radicalism rather than continue to do business with the guilty that traditionally operate within the elite levels of a state.
Crowdsourcing the bin Laden hunt would also be a real test for these new technologies. A successful effort here would likely have as much impact on the practice of intelligence as 9/11 had on our thinking about terrorism.
So what say you, DARPA? The "eleventh balloon" is out there! Get with the Rewards for Justice people and announce another challenge (this time for some real money).