By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Bottom-up, real-time tech to counter terrorists?

crowdsourced idea

David Bray is CIO of the Federal Communications Commission. Although the FCC is not normally regarded as a government IT heavyweight, Bray himself has succeeded at becoming something of a celebrity in federal technology circles. He is a relentless advocate of bottom-up initiatives from civil servants, and is constantly urging senior government folks to encourage and empower "change agents" inside their organizations. He has 117,000 followers on Twitter (@fcc_cio), compared with 4,800 for the CIO Council.

In the wake of the recent Paris horrors, Bray has published a post on LinkedIn called, Is a DARPA-like Activity Needed to Counter Violence in Civilian Spaces? It reaffirms my impression that Bray is a really smart, creative guy –- I urge blog readers to check out the column and to see if we as an IT community can do something to make his suggestions happen.

Bray's basic idea is to see whether we can come up with technologies that would allow ordinary people present at an attack -- those in the process of becoming victims -- to disable the terrorists before they can kill. "Remembering the tragic terrorist attacks in Mumbai, where the attackers used the same social media, GPS, cell phones, web search, and other technologies that millions of civilians use for benign purposes daily," he writes. "[C]ould we find a way to turn the tables and use these same benign technologies to demobilize or at least halt a potential violent act until authorities can arrive?"

While obviously Bray does not have fully worked-out solutions, he offers a number of intriguing ideas that could serve as a basis for further investigation. For example, "could public buildings have sensors that if they picked up the sound of gunfire, issue some way of immobilizing all individuals near the source of the sound perhaps with flashes, sounds, or even foam?"

Alternatively, "could citizens opt-in with their smartphones to provide security at a group event, helping to triangulate and demobilize the source any large sounds of gunfire." One might also imagine some variant on pepper spray people wear on their bodies that would be automatically activated by gunfire.

Obviously, these suggestions raise lots of questions, particularly about how good any sensing technology would be to distinguish between gunshots and other sounds. Bray also notes that any counter-measures would need to be non-lethal, to reduce risks from false positives that did occur. And one would need to have laws against misuse of these technologies for purposes other than stopping an assault on people.

Bray's idea of mobilizing those at the scene against terrorists is of course a high-tech version of the line of argument of anti-gun control people that the way to stop mass shootings is for people to be armed so they can themselves shoot assailants. The pro-gun crowd often argues, for example, that there are shootings on campus because universities often prohibit carrying guns. However, we may note that at neither of the two mass movie theater shootings in recent years -- in 2012 in Aurora, Colo., and in Lafayette, La., this summer -- did any member of the public shoot at the assailant. Bray's suggestion that any technologies might need to be triggered automatically is therefore probably sensible.

In addition to suggesting a goal to allow bottom-up, real time counter-measures by the public during terrorist attacks, Bray also suggests a way to get ideas for such technologies: crowdsourcing ideas from the public, then vetting them. He suggests DARPA might do this; I wonder if GSA would be interested in organizing a contest on Challenge.gov.

Bray also, in passing, throws out the idea of a public-private partnership, given the interest of industry in reducing terrorism dangers. I think his most important idea is to try to find ways the public can disenable terrorists in real time, using technology. Some versions of Bray's ideas for how one might best organize the search process for bringing forth such ideas are probably also useful.

Finding technologies to which the public would have access that can be used to thwart terrorists in real time doesn't seem to me like a utopian, impractical idea. Should the federal IT community organize to try to make this happen? It could be a nice project to adopt!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 17, 2015 at 10:42 AM


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