Tag Archives: homeland security

Punk Rock OR Podcast #4: Sheldon Jacobson on aviation security

The fourth edition of the Punk Rock OR Podcast is out.  With the 10th anniversary of September 11th coming up, I decided to a podcast episode on aviation security was in order. Dr. Sheldon Jacobson from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign agreed to chat with me about his research on aviation security to highlight the role of operations research in homeland security.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast feed via the podcast web site.


Sheldon Jacobson

terrorism analytics

For this month’s blog challenge, I was inspired by one of the month’s big stories: how Osama bin Laden was caught.

The Navy SEALs deservedly get a lot of credit for the role they play in the ongoing wars on terror, but nerds also play a critical role in fighting terror. The intelligence that played a role in finding bin Laden depended on people on the ground in foreign countries as well as on analytics. Many intelligence agencies are populated by nerds who use analytical techniques on the large volume of data they collect.

We’ll never know exactly how important analytics is in fighting terrorism, but I’ve written a few thoughts here.

Various US government agencies collect and analyze an enormous amount of data on a daily basis.  The NSA collects data equivalent in size to the Library of Congress every six hours.  All of this data obviously cannot be scrutinized at a detailed level (hopefully they don’t get to all of it–I may be put on a watch list if someone looks at the google search terms I used to write this post).  A data rich environment can lead to excellent decision-making if care is taken to determine how to use one’s limited resources for using analytical techniques.  In the terrorism example, how does one determine

  1. which cell phone communications to record?
  2. which phone conversations deserve a transcript and which emails need to be translated?
  3. which data to summarize as metadata?

Another problem with terrorism is the lack of a proper dependent variable.  For example, suppose you collect some cell phones that were used by known terrorists. If you want to look at the terrorists’ social networks by examining the calls sent and received from the terrorists’ phones, it is impossible to know if their calls were made to other terrorists or not (unless some of the numbers are to known terrorists).

This problem is not unlike, say, credit card companies trying to detect fraud.  Both terrorism and fraud detection involve finding a needle in the haystack.  However, terrorism social networks are large and involve many types of transactions (rather than, say, just credit card transactions). Osama bin Laden used flash drives and written communication delivered by courier, whereas others who are lower in the food chain use cell phones, land lines, email, etc. Credit card companies can also make decisions like dropping risky customers that don’t have analogous decisions when fighting terror.

It’s “easier” for a credit card company to determine who is fraudulent based on having more knowledge about their customers and having more certainty about their dependent variable (whether fraud is an issue). My credit card company called me while on vacation this winter, since my unusual purchases set of some kind of red flag.  I was able to verify that no fraud was taking place after I answered a few questions.  I was glad that they were looking out for me. No harm no foul.

Analytics used for fighting terror includes mining cell phone traffic for patterns, identifying social network analysis of terrorist organizations, and creating a system for analyzing risk air passengers or cargo containers (this report summarizes some of the analytical techniques that have been used). There are certainly some fascinating examples that are classified, but well have to speculate about those.

I’ve enjoyed the other blog posts about Analytics, especially those that discuss how analytics fits with the past and future of operations research. Please check out the other OR blogs to read more about analytics.

Related posts:

A post from the INFORMS computing society conference: are application-oriented conferences too specialized?

I am attending the INFORMS Computing Society (ICS) Conference this week.  This is my first ICS Conference.  In addition to the focus on computing, the conference selected homeland security for its theme, with a secondary theme of energy security.  I initially found it unusual for an already-specialized  conference to have an application area focus.

On second thought, many conferences have application area focuses, such as transportation, health, risk analysis.  The application-focused conferences tend to attract people with a broad range of interests who use a variety of tools.  I suppose that the dual focus on computing would not be too limiting, but homeland security seems more focused than, say, health applications.

As a homeland security researcher, I have to say that I was eventually won over.  The talks were all pretty interesting to me, and there was a strong theme to the talks in nearly every session.  Best of all, conference was populated with other homeland security enthusiasts, so the questions asked during the talks were really insightful.  The audience questions quite often gave me even more to think about than the talks.

Since I am interested in both computation and homeland security, nearly all of the talks appealed to me.  Despite having a mere five tracks, I often had to make some tough choices between talks scheduled at the same time and missed more than a few talks that I wanted to see.

The five concurrent sessions were a nice contrast with the 75 concurrent sessions at at the INFORMS Annual Meeting.  Walking between buildings to session hop is not ideal.  When I started attending the INFORMS Annual Meeting, there were about 50 concurrent sessions, and all sessions fit within one convention center.  I have been hoping for the number tracks to be cut back, but they seem to grow every year.  But this tangent should really be its own post, so I’ll stop reflecting for now and come back to this theme later.

I would like to know if those who are less interested in homeland security enjoyed the ICS theme of homeland security as much as I did.  Given that many homeland security applications are ultimately aimed at managing risk, they have broad applicability beyond homeland security and even extreme events.  So I am not sure if the application was really all that limiting.

I hope not too many were deterred by the application focus.  Did you attend ICS?  If so, what did you think of the homeland security focus?

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?