March 10, 2009

Cerebral Security Regime

With Pakistan succumbing to the Taliban and the US blindly stumbling around in an economic graveyard, we in India must start looking out for ways to defend our way of life from the misery that is engulfing the neighbourhood -- but the question is what and how ? No political activist in any party -- whether the Congress, the BJP or any of the satraps now jostling for an opportunity to loot the country after the elections -- has any clear idea on how to ensure the security of life and limb and so it is up us to try to figure out a way forward.

When India was threatened by food security in the sixties and seventies, we used technology to pull us out of the mire. Despite the adverse impact on the environment, the massive use of fertilisers and irrigation techniques -- the Green Revolution -- helped us evade the immediate crisis of mass starvation and allowed us to live and fight another day ! Today it is physical security from terrorism that is emerging as a threat as big as the food security issue in the sixties and seventies and we have no option but to fall back once again on technology.

In the sixties we realised that small incremental increases in food output would be of little use and were forced to throw in massive amounts of technology : the situation today is very similar. Putting in an extra battalion of policemen or buying a thousand pieces of night-vision binoculars is not enough to stop the imminent threat of being run over by Terrorist Express. It is time to call in the heavy artillery of high technology.

But what technology and how ? Let me try to explain ...

The Calcutta police has now mandated that all parking attendants must note down the registration numbers of all parked cars along with the licence number of the drivers and you will find that these poor fellows are now running around the streets with little notebooks. But does anybody know what happens to the data that is so collected ? Of course if a bomb goes off, I am sure that these note books will be called for to determine who was in the neighbourhood but can we not use this data to see if we can predict and perhaps prevent the crime ?

The volume of data is large, data entry is a challenge and analysing it is even more so but this is where we can throw in large dollops of technology -- scanning, pattern recognition, geo-tagging to Google Maps -- and try to make sense of what is going on.

Actually this approach is neither new, nor unique. Data Mining as a mathematical tool has been in vogue to seek unusual and interesting patterns in mountains of data : who is making phone calls to whom ? who is making financial transactions ? with whom ? for what amount of money ? who is booking a seat or berth on a train ? or an aircraft ? who is actually flying ? who is checking into a hotel ? when ? where is his next destination ? which car is crossing which toll-booth on which highway ? all this data is already available. If we wish to compromise on privacy issues we can even track the contents of all emails, all blogs, all internet discussion forums and even all telephone conversations.

So it is possible to track -- as is evident from the charge sheet filed against Ajmal Kasab -- all this information but the tracking that is happening now is post-facto or after the event.

We need to put in place a new security regime that will track all this -- and perhaps more, on a systematic basis. Prima-facie, the sheer volume of data is enormous ! But this is where technology should be used creatively. Both storage space and processing power is now dirt cheap -- and can be deployed in a ' brute force' mode, but they must be used in conjunction with sophisticated algorithms to pin-point deviations from the norm and then the regular police can move in and do the needful.

Security agencies in the US, Europe and elsewhere have been using Data Mining technologies to combat crime and while there have been criticism of racial profiling, where people with Muslim names and Semitic backgrounds have been investigated or even "harassed", the fact remains that the number of terrorism related fatalities in those countries are a fraction when compared to the hundreds who have died in bomb blasts in India ! So even though there have been many "false positives" : where perfect harmless people or situations have been deemed to dangerous, it would be stupid to deny the positive contribution made by these tools and techniques.

Without belittling the "muscular security" provided by our men-in-khaki, it is time for India's business leadership to come forward and propose a new public-private partnership in the area of "cerebral security". We have enough intellectual firepower in the mathematics departments of our universities and in our software companies to take on this challenge but there is no way that they can be fitted into the current administrative setup without corroding them to the point of being reduced to worthless sarkari clerks ! What we need is a new structure managed with the freedom and flexibility of the private sector but attached to and working closely with the public security apparatus in a way that is serves as a force-multiplier for the latter.

India's response to the Mumbai terrorism was the creation of another acronym : FIA? but is it qualitatively any different from IB, CID, CBI, RAW ? Not really. It is the same IPS officers, with the same mindset that are being shuffled around with new posts, new titles, new offices, new perks but no new ideas ! This will not work.

Instead, CII and NASSCOM must work together to propose a new agency which will serve as a nucleus of a cerebral security regime that will complement and supplement the muscular security regime that is currently in existence. Such an agency should be run as a commercial organisation with a business model that involves collecting information and selling intelligence services to government and non-government organisations. The government as the initial and primary consumer of such services, can aid and assist this concept by allowing it float tax-free bonds and guaranteeing a certain level of assured business but going forward such a security service should be able to stand on its own.

Private security agencies are dime a dozen and most of them are doing pretty well selling muscular security services. It is time for us to look beyond the obvious and plan for similar agencies that offer cerebral security services.

Privatisation is not the panacea to all evils and Yechury and party will gleefully point to the nationalisation of banks in the UK and in the US as a vindication of their stance, but in India, private sector managers have -- when allowed to operate honestly -- consistently provided better goods and services than the neta-babu nexus that throttles the country today.

Massive technology in the hands of a private intelligence agency may prove to be a more effective solution to the threats facing us today.

1 comment:

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