Stephenson: Web 2.0 and security

Social-networking technologies offer benefits that support a homeland security agenda

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10 a.m. Sept. 4, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

Some analysts are worried that the hype-to-reality ratio with Web 2.0 means we’re approaching the bursting of another technology bubble.

I’m less worried about the hype. I believe that Web 2.0 applications can address homeland security and national security concerns because the applications are resilient and well-suited to collaboration.

Web 2.0, as tech author Tim O’Reilly defined it, is the network as a platform spanning all connected devices. Technically, Web 2.0 applications reside on the Web, not on an employee’s desktop PC, so they’re constantly updated. More important, employees can still access programs and files, even if their computers are inaccessible, as they might be during a national security emergency.

Data portability poses serious security risks. But with an increasingly mobile government workforce, we must solve those problems by encrypting thumb drives, for example. Security risks aren’t a justification for resisting advances in data portability.

More important, however, is the collaboration that Web 2.0 fosters. O’Reilly said Web 2.0 allows “consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users.”

Collaboration is invaluable to homeland security and national security officials because they need to connect the dots and quickly respond to fast-changing situations. Circumstances may not allow for lengthy review and approval procedures. Letting everyone view a document simultaneously can hasten approvals.

Web 2.0 applications promote a phenomenon first observed in social insects, such as ants. Variously termed crowdsourcing, swarm intelligence or emergent behavior, the concept describes how groups can collectively produce thoughts and actions surpassing those of any single person. Perhaps the most relevant example for us would be the inspired actions of passengers who became heroes on United Flight 93.

Wikis, blogs and other Web 2.0 applications let junior analysts, who might be afraid to speak up in a private meeting with a boss, express critical insights and quickly gain support. By making decision-making more transparent, Web 2.0 applications can minimize the harm from individuals in the chain-of-command who squelch important ideas from below.

Swarm intelligence describes how ideas emerge through group dynamics: You suggest an idea, I react and a third person suggests an important variation after considering both our ideas and filtering them through his or her unique combination of skills and life experience. Such collaboration often produces better ideas than a single person can offer.

The resiliency and collaborative nature of Web 2.0 applications convince me that, although Web 2.0 might threaten command-and-control organizations and force us to redouble our efforts to improve mobile data security, those applications offer advantages for homeland and national security purposes that far outweigh the risks.

Stephenson of Stephenson Strategies in Medfield, Mass., is a homeland security, disaster management, and e-government theorist and strategist. Read his blog at

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