Monday, January 11, 2010
The Terror Telestrator
I recently had the pleasure of watching the Alex Rivera film Sleep Dealer, an amazing work of Mexican cyberpunk about info-maquilas and memories for sale in near-future Tijuana. One of the more over-the-top plot elements was a reality television show in which viewers help drone pilots select their terror targets.
Or so I thought.
This morning's NY Times has an amazing report about the Pentagon's struggle to figure out how to process the huge quantities of data it is receiving from the proliferating network of Predator/Reaper drones patrolling the skies of the earth. Last year the drones were in the air for 200,000 combat flight hours, each generating a constant feed of live video and other data. That content is amount to exponentially increase, not only through the addition of more drones, but through the addition of eyes. This year the Reapers will be able to begin recording video in ten directions at once. Next year it will increase to 30 directions at once, and after that, 65. That's a lot of eyes in the skies.
To better harvest the actionable intelligence contained in these planetary surveillance tapes, the brass in charge of the Geospatial Intelligence Agency has been hanging out in ESPN broadcast vans, learning how football game video is transformed into a real-time data feed that gives the viewers a better understanding of the totality of what's happening—through a mix of text, live video, replays, and graphical augmentations of the filmed reality—than most of the coaches probably have during the game.
Government agencies are still having trouble making sense of the flood of data they collect for intelligence purposes, a point underscored by the 9/11 Commission and, more recently, by President Obama after the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound passenger flight on Christmas Day.
Mindful of those lapses, the Air Force and other military units are trying to prevent an overload of video collected by the drones, and they are turning to the television industry to learn how to quickly share video clips and display a mix of data in ways that make analysis faster and easier.
They are even testing some of the splashier techniques used by broadcasters, like the telestrator that John Madden popularized for scrawling football plays. It could be used to warn troops about a threatening vehicle or to circle a compound that a drone should attack.
“Imagine you are tuning in to a football game without all the graphics,” said Lucius Stone, an executive at Harris Broadcast Communications, a provider of commercial technology that is working with the military. “You don’t know what the score is. You don’t know what the down is. It’s just raw video. And that’s how the guys in the military have been using it.”
Pretty interesting stuff. But how much are the dudes in the DOD trailers in Orlando going to be able to do with the multiple "games" represented by several hundred or thousand drones in the air at any one time?
Isn't the more likely result the birth of the ultimate in open source intelligence — an application of the SETI@home distributed computing model to fighting the war on terror? Imagine if the Pentagon set up a separate YouTube channel in which the raw video was made available (even if only on a time-delayed basis for ex post facto analysis) to the general public for analysis? If the FBI has an iPhone app for information on the most wanted terrorists, how much of a leap would it be for DOD to turn the aerial surveillance of the brown highways of the Yemeni interior and the black spots on the map of Waziristan over to the enthusiastic entrepreneurs of augmented reality apps? Let the zeitgeist achieve what it wants, and allow the private sector to turn the video into the basis of a real-world tactical game, in which teenage boys in suburban Chicago tag the Talis for special attention.