After the FBI gets its data systems operating, it will try to tie them to information held in the databanks of other agencies or private entities that may prove crucial in rooting out terrorists.
For example, by combing different agencies' records, the FBI could find a person who was denied a visa, took a flying lesson and may be moving next door to a suspected terrorist. An automated process would connect the information "for an analyst to say, 'Hey look, here's three clues,' " Chiaradio said.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 31, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 7 inches; 268 words Type of Material: Correction
Suicide bombers--A story in Monday's Section A on efforts to fight terrorism indicated that a young female suicide bomber who exploded a bomb Jan. 27 in Jerusalem was the first woman to do so. In fact, there have been female suicide bombers before, notably in Sri Lanka.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 09, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 178 words Type of Material: Correction
FBI--A story in Section A on July 29 about fighting terrorism gave the wrong business affiliation for Robert J. Chiaradio. He works for KPMG Consulting Inc., not the accounting firm KPMG. The two companies are not affiliated.
That process is technically challenging because it involves many systems that use incompatible software and divergent methods to label and organize information.
But similarly connected databases are becoming commonplace in the corporate world and gradually are being adopted in the intelligence community, according to private data-mining contractors such as Presearch Inc. and Veridian Corp.
The National Security Agency has linked about 20 disparate databases containing human intelligence, electronic eavesdropping files, pictures and sounds using software from Webmethods Inc., said Len Pomata, a company executive. Pilot projects within NSA and the Transportation Security Administration are now linking such data to public records, such as real estate ownership and marriage and death certificates, he said.
Systems can even be designed to track missing data, said James H. Vaules, a former FBI executive who heads the National Fraud Center, a data-mining subsidiary of Lexis-Nexis.
"A lack of information is probably the [biggest] red flag," he said. "If you are 40 years old and there are no public records on you in this country, then there's something up--it just doesn't happen."
Effort Was 'Pipe Dream'
The FBI has coveted such abilities since the 1980s--investing substantial time and resources without success, according to officials familiar with the project. The entire effort was "a pipe dream," said an agent who declined to be identified.
But data-mining developments are beginning to produce predictive abilities--such as banks scanning credit card purchases for anomalies that suggest fraudulent transactions.
The FBI says such techniques will preempt terrorists.
"There was not a specific warning [before Sept. 11] about an attack on a particular day. But that doesn't mean that there weren't
But systems that make sense of highly varied inputs are still in their infancy, independent experts say.
For example, the NSA may be able to find a photo of a cargo plane and an intercepted flight plan but not know what the plane carried, even if the flight manifest was accessible. Every scanned document, film clip and photo must be labeled with multiple codes to allow efficient searches--and to compare data, the labels must be consistent. To a computer, "occupation" and "employment category" are not necessarily equivalent.
The scope of that task will be staggering, given the volume of terrorism materials in question. Prosecutors in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, allegedly the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker, declined to print out discovery material for the defendant, because the documents "would leave no room for Mr. Moussaoui in his cell ... and might even consume the entire jail."
Yet the bureau proposes to sift thousands of times as much data as a matter of routine.
Chiaradio said the biggest challenge will not be handling huge volumes of information but securing it.
"Do we want to bet that our technology is going to be one day ahead of a 13-year-old in Alabama who's getting into the system and beating it?" Chiaradio said. "It's a business risk that eventually the director or somebody is going to have to" take.
And internal spies or interagency leaks pose additional security problems.
"The more people who have access to that information, the surer it is to leak," said Michael Vatis, director of the FBI's cyber-crime unit.
Mindful of the damage that FBI spy Robert Philip Hanssen caused by navigating intelligence files, several senators say they are concerned that the FBI may be leaning too far toward an open system in an effort to make files more accessible to all agents.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said at a recent Senate hearing that the FBI should keep a separate system for sensitive intelligence data--available only on a need-to-know basis.
Yet in a technical sense, security problems may seem trivial compared with the challenge of developing artificial-intelligence methods that can generate knowledge to stop terrorism before it occurs.
The FBI is seeking pattern-recognition algorithms that can discern hints of terrorism from what Jeffrey D. Ullman, professor of computer science at Stanford University, calls "the soup of billions of possible coincidences."
Instead of needing the right question, an analyst would merely say "show me something out there that looks odd," and get, say, a report about an influx of Middle Eastern men in flight training, he said.