Tag Archives: homeland security

OR and the intelligence community

The (security) intelligence community (IC) is mainly made up of people with a non-technical background (such as political science majors).  Although the IC makes tough decisions under uncertainty given limited information (one of the things that OR does so well), the IC manly uses intuition and expert judgment to make decisions.  Ed Kaplan, who gave the  Philip McCord Morse lecture at INFORMS 2010, spoke about the intelligence community and the role that OR needs to play in the IC.

There are clear needs to use advanced analytical methods in the IC.  The NSA, for example,  collects 1.7B emails per day.  How do they determine which emails to read and analyze?  Clearly, they only have the resources to read a few.  How should they allocate their resources between collecting new data and analyzing the data?  The good news is that the NSA hires OR people (they even have a summer program for graduate students in OR), and the CIA is starting to hire OR people too.

Kaplan reminds us that intelligence is not just an operations problem.  People with language and cultural skills are needed to interpret the nuances and make tough judgments that no algorithm can do.  Human agents have been highly successful at using non-analytical techniques at detection suicide bombing attempts in Israel, which resulted in a plummeting number of successful suicide attacks.  OR cannot replace the human element, but it can certainly aid it.  And often it’s routine law enforcement–not intelligence–that makes the difference.

There have been some attempts at using OR to solve intelligence problems.  Ed Kaplan introduced two obscure articles that were a lot of fun.  A 1967 article in a classified CIA journal (unclassified in 1994) applies Bayes rule to the Cuban missile crisis.  The paper uses the input from 200 agents in the field that reported that they believed that the Soviets were up to something in Cuba, even though none had visual evidence.  The odds started out as 10-to-1 against the Soviets building missiles in early 1962, and slowly increased to 3-to-1 and then 50/50 (1-to-1) based on successive applications of Bayes rule.

J. Michael Steele published a paper in Management Science entitled “Models for Managing Secrets” based on the Tom Clancy Theorem, which states that the time to detect a secret is inversely proportional to the square of the people that know it (stated without proof in the Hunt for Red October).  The paper applies Poisson processes to “prove” Tom Clancy’s theorem.  It also analyzes countermeasures according to how they would result in a secret being kept for longer.

Kaplan has written a few papers on intelligence, including his recent paper Terror Queues, which applies queuing models to determine how agents (servers) can interdict (serve) terrorists (customers) before the terrorists complete an attack (leave the queue).

Kaplan finished the lecture by encouraging researchers to continue to examine the many problems in IC from an OR perspective.  How do you think OR could be used by the IC?


Emily Stoll on using math/OR in the real world

Emily Stoll from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory gave  a talk on balancing life and work as part of the Women in Math program.  She offered several lessons that she has learned along the way.

Stoll has a degree in civil engineering, a degree in applied math, and an MBA.  She talked about all of the different things you can do with an applied math degree.  Most of her work involves homeland security applications.  As a mathematical analyst, she analyzed submarine data using the Chi-squared test, Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, Fault tree analysis, and other statistical tests.    She used design of experiments as well as modeling and simulation to improve port security.  Her research on receiver operating (ROC) curves for IED detection was featured in the TSA’s blog.

One of the more interesting projects Stoll was involved with is the US NavyMarine Mammals” program. She helped to optimize the location of dolphins and sea lions to interdict dangerous materials (such as mines) and for swimmer defense.  Amazingly, the US Navy has been using the marine mammals program since the Vietnam War era.

All of Stoll’s work requires the use of statistics.  It’s nice to know that the tools I teach students in STAT 541 (an introductory statistics course for engineers) are widely used in industry, even by mathematicians and engineers who don’t consider themselves to be statisticians.

Stoll’s excellent life lessons include:

  • Take your time to think about a job offer before accepting
  • Know what you want before you go after it.
  • Build and use your network.
  • Very few decisions in life are Life Decisions.
  • Sometimes you have to take a risk.
  • You can do it all, just not at the same time.
  • Do what works for you.
  • Realize that it can be done.
  • Realize that you will need help.
  • Realize that almost every other woman in your position are struggling with the same decisions.
  • Figure out what is important to you and make that your priority.

OR can improve nuclear and global security

I attended a talk about nuclear security given by Dr. Houston Wood (University of Virginia, Dept. of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering) about using gas centrifuges for making nuclear isotopes. The applications could include both civilian (e.g., nuclear power) and military (e.g., WMDs), with the line between these two being very thin, particularly in the case of highly enriched uranium.

While OR was not central to this talk, it was clear that OR can play a critical role in thickening the line between civilian and military uses of enriched uranium. Dr. Wood listed these topics

  • Increasing transparency and inspections
  • Increasing safeguards (e.g., measuring material quantities)
  • Adding materials accountability and control (e.g., )
  • Clearly defining events that prompt state response

If you think nuclear theft isn’t much of an issue, think again.  The IAEA database indicates that there are hundreds of known cases of theft of nuclear material.  Yikes.

How else can OR protect us from a nuclear attack?