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Poindexter, Jonas and The Birth of Real-Time Dot Connecting

There’s a case that could be made that John Poindexter is the godfather of the real-time Network. I came to this conclusion after reading Shane Harris’s excellent book, The Watchers, The Rise of the Surveillance State. When you think about real-time systems, you might start with the question: who has the most at stake? Who perceives a fully-functional toolset working within a real-time electronic network as critical to survival?

To some, Poindexter will primarily be remembered for his role in the Iran-Contra Affair. Others may know something about his role in coordinating intelligence across organizational silos in the Achille Lauro Incident. It was Poindexter who looked at the increasing number of surprise terrorist attacks, including the 1983 Beruit Marine Barracks Bombing, and decided that we should know enough about these kinds of attacks before they happen to be able to prevent them. In essence, we should not be vulnerable to surprise attack from non-state terrorist actors.

After the fact, it’s fairly easy to look at all the intelligence across multiple sources, and at our leisure, connect the dots. We then turn to those in charge and ask why they couldn’t have done the same thing in real time. We slap our heads and say, ‘this could have been prevented.’ We collected all the dots we needed, what stopped us from connecting them?

The easy answer would be to say it can’t be done. Currently, we don’t have the technology and there is no legal framework, or precedent, that would support this kind of data collection and correlation. You can’t predict what will happen next, if you don’t know what’s happening right now in real time. And in the case of non-state actors, you may not even know who you’re looking for. Poindexter believed it could be done, and he began work on a program that was eventually called Total Information Awareness to make it happen.

TIA System Diagram

In his book, Shane Harris posits a central metaphor for understanding Poindexter’s pursuit. Admiral Poindexter served on submarines and spent time using sonar to gather intelligible patterns from the general background of noise filling the depths of the ocean. Poindexter believed that if he could pull in electronic credit card transactions, travel records, phone records, email, web site activity, etc., he could find the patterns of behavior that were necessary precursors to a terrorist attack.

In order to use real-time track for pattern recognition, TIA (Total Information Awareness) had to pull in everything about everyone. That meant good guys, bad guys and bystanders would all be scooped up in the same net. To connect the dots in real time your need all the dots in real time. Poindexter realized that this presented a personal privacy issue.

As a central part of TIA’s architecture, Poindexter proposed that the TIA system encrypt the personal identities of all the dots it gathered. TIA was looking for patterns of behavior. Only when the patterns and scenarios that the system was tracking emerged from the background, and been reviewed by human analysts, would a request be made to decrypt the personal identities. In addition, every human user of the TIA system would be subject to a granular-level audit trail. The TIA system itself would be watching the watchers.

The fundamental divide in the analysis and interpretation of real-time dot connecting was raised when Jeff Jonas entered the picture. Jonas had made a name for himself by developing real-time systems to identify fraudsters and hackers in Las Vegas casinos. Jonas and Poindexter met at a small conference and hit it off. Eventually Jonas parted ways with Poindexter on the issue of whether a real-time system could reliably pinpoint the identity of individual terrorists and their social networks through analysis of emergent patterns. Jonas believed you had to work from a list of suspected bad actors. Using this approach, Jonas had been very successful in the world of casinos in correlating data across multiple silos in real time to determine when a bad actor was about to commit a bad act.

Jonas thought that Poindexter’s approach with TIA would result in too many false positives and too many bad leads for law enforcement to follow up. Poindexter countered that the system was meant to identify smaller data sets of possible bad actors through emergent patterns. These smaller sets would then be run through the additional filter of human analysts. The final output would be a high-value list of potential investigations.

Of course, once Total Information Awareness was exposed to the harsh light of the daily newspaper and congressional committees, its goose was cooked. No one wanted the government spying on them without a warrant and strong oversight. Eventually Congress voted to dismantle the program. This didn’t change the emerging network-connected information environment, nor did it change the expectation that we should be able to coordinate and correlate data across multiple data silos to stop terrorist attacks in real time. Along side the shutting down of TIA, and other similar government efforts, was the rise of Google, social networks, and other systems that used network-based personal data to predict consumer purchases; guess which web site a user might be looking for; and even the bet on the direction of stocks trading on exchanges.

Poindexter had developed the ideas and systems for TIA in the open. Once it was shut down, the system was disassembled and portions of it ported over to the black ops part of the budget. The system simply became opaque, because the people and agencies charged with catching bad actors in real time still needed a toolset. The tragedy of this, as Shane Harris points out, is that Poindexter’s vision around protecting individual privacy through identity encryption was left behind. It was deemed too expensive and too difficult. But the use of real-time data correlation techniques, social graph analysis, in-memory data stores and real-time pattern recognition are all still at work.

It’s likely that the NSA, and other agencies, are using a combination of Poindexter’s and Jonas’s approaches right now: real-time data correlation around suspected bad actors, and their social graphs— combined with a general sonar-like scanning of the ocean of real-time information to pick up emergent patterns that match the precursors of terrorist acts. What’s missing is a dialogue about our expectations, our rights to privacy and the reality of the real-time networked information environment that we inhabit. We understood the idea of wiretapping a telephone, but what does that mean in the age of the iPhone?

Looking at the structure of these real-time data correlation systems, it’s easy to see their migration pattern. They’ve moved from the intelligence community to wall street to the technology community to daily commerce. Social CRM is the buzz word that describes the corporate implementation; some form of real-time VRM will be the consumer’s version of the system. The economics of the ecosystem of the Network has begun to move these techniques and tools to the center of our lives. We’ve always wanted to alter our relationship to time, we want to know with a very high probability what is going to happen next. We start with the highest-value targets, and move all the way down to a prediction of which television show we’ll want to watch and which laundry detergent we’ll end up telling our friend about.

Shane Harris begins his book The Watchers with the story of Able Danger, an effort to use data mining, social graph and correlation techniques on the public Network to understand Al Qaeda. This was before much was known about the group or its structure. One of the individuals working on Able Danger was Erik Kleinsmith, he was one of the first to use these techniques to uncover and visualize a terrorist network. And while he may not have been able to predict the 9/11 attacks, his analysis seemed to connect more dots than any other approach. But without a legal context for this kind of analysis of the public Network, the data and the intelligence was deleted and unused.

Working under the code name Able Danger, Kleinsmith compiled an enormous digital dossier on the terrorist outfit (Al Qaeda). The volume was extraordinary for its size— 2.5 terabytes, equal to about one-tenth of all printed pages held by the Library of Congress— but more so for its intelligence significance. Kleinsmith had mapped Al Qaeda’s global footprint. He had diagrammed how its members were related, how they moved money, and where they had placed operatives. Kleinsmith show military commanders and intelligence chiefs where to hit the network, how to dismantle it, how to annihilate it. This was priceless information but also an alarm bell– the intelligence showed that Al Qaeda had established a presence inside the United States, and signs pointed to an imminent attack.

That’s when he ran into his present troubles. Rather than relying on classified intelligence databases, which were often scant on details and hopelessly fragmentary, Kleinsmith had created his Al Qaeda map with data drawn from the Internet, home to a bounty of chatter and observations about terrorists and holy war. He cast a digital net over thousands of Web sites, chat rooms, and bulletin boards. Then he used graphing and modeling programs to turn the raw data into three-dimensional topographic maps. These tools displayed seemingly random data as a series of peaks and valleys that showed how people, places, and events were connected. Peaks near each other signaled  connection in the data underlying them. A series of peaks signaled that Kleinsmith should take a closer look.

…Army lawyers had put him on notice: Under military regulations Kleinsmith could only store his intelligence for ninety days if it contained references to U.S. persons. At the end of that brief period, everything had to go. Even the inadvertent capture of such information amounted to domestic spying. Kleinsmith could go to jail.

As he stared at his computer terminal, Kleinsmith ached at the thought of what he was about to do. This is terrible.

He pulled up some relevant files on his hard drive, hovered over them with his cursor, and selected the whole lot. Then he pushed the delete key. Kleinsmith did this for all the files on his computer, until he’d eradicated everything related to Able Danger. It took less than half an hour to destroy what he’d spent three months building. The blueprint for global terrorism vanished into the electronic ether.

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