Earlier in the month, Carol and I were travelling to a business meeting 160 miles from our house. In 2015, driving across Britain is not simply a matter of setting the cruise control and putting “The Carpenters” on the audio system. Rather, every journey is an intense, close-combat battle in which your life is on the line at each intersection. After a couple of hours, we always need a comfort break and so we stop at a very nice service station which serves better than average coffee and where the staff always smile.
On the way out, we passed one of the other tables and saw a thick, rather glossy brochure with a picture of Eurofighter on the cover, aka the Typhoon – available from a friendly arms dealer near you for a mere $150 million, plus the extras of course.
The pic of the fighter plane attracted me because, at one time, I nearly became an RAF pilot and I later flew private aircraft. I took the brochure back to the cashier and said that it had been left on the table. She told me to throw it in the garbage can at the side of her desk. I thought that this was something of a waste so I asked if I could have it and she readily agreed. Strictly speaking, this was stealing by finding but it wasn’t a high level crime.
The brochure turned out to be the Annual Report for BAE Systems – a British company with a vast range of defense interests from building aircraft carriers – two of them costing only $10 billion each and we wonder why Britain is broke – to maintaining US Navy warships at Norfolk, Virginia, making planes, missiles and everything else necessary to kill as many people as efficiently as possible.
This is what might be expected of a weapons company. However, what was really interesting is the cyber warfare arm of the company. Fighting the enemy electronically is now as important as sticking a missile up its bottom and pressing the fire button.
Apparently, the hot topic in cyber warfare is efficient data processing – and this is where the subject becomes really interesting for motorcyclists.
This is what BAE had to say to potential investors: “BAE provides the intelligence and defense communities with increasingly automated, efficient and reliable data processing and management tools to transform Big Data into actionable intelligence.”
This is very interesting if you happen to be a spy or a terrorist but what do BAE’s aims mean in the real world? At one time, our illustrious Editor Bart Madson and I had a spate of being silly by including certain key words in e-mails. For example, if I write: Kalashnikov, Waziristan; turban; goat curry and RPG in one sentence this will be flagged up as a potential threat to our security because key trigger words – yes, that is actually what they are called – have been used.
Some poor analyst, who would rather be reading MotoUSA than trawling through silly e-mails written by adults who haven’t yet grown up, then has to look at the words in context and put another mark in the “Very Silly” and “Should Know Better” boxes in my profile.
If you then scale this up to the number of e-mails sent every day – it’s currently 1,000,000,000 and increasing every hour – then sorting out this mass of meta-data requires not so much the best human analysts in the world but some super-smart software. It is this sort of genuinely intelligent software which is causing so much interest in the defense communities.
After the heinous murder of British soldier Lee Rigby, incredibly outside his barracks in the center of London, an intelligence expert was grilled on TV and asked why the British Security Services, who are actually rather good at their job, had not known about the attack before it happened. He replied that the problem was not so much the size of the data haystack but the quality of the magnet the good guys have for finding the terrorist needle.
This is the area where BAE are working so hard. If truly predictive, intelligent software can be developed then much good, as well as bad, can result for society.
On the positive side, it will no longer take three hours to check in for an international flight. We will then avoid the farcical situation which currently exists at Security checks. The last time we went to Greece, a buxom grandmother had to undergo the public humiliation, and it really was demeaning, of being x-rayed because, Carol discerned, she was wearing an under-wired bra.
This necessary item of clothing for a lady of her build freaked out the metal detectors along with the female security guard who was tasked with deciding whether the seventy five year old lady, with two grandchildren in tow, was likely to want to highjack the aircraft taking her on holiday.
The truly bizarre part of the whole farce was that the lady was so well built that she had difficulty raising her arms above her shoulders to be x-rayed. This cannot be acceptable.
In Europe, you have to provide details of your passport weeks before you ever get on a plane. This means that your whole life can be cross-referenced by the many agencies with an interest in your movements – or none.
It starts with your credit card details – which record your address plus the last ten zillion purchases. Heaven help you if should you try to pay for a ticket with cash because you really will be heading for an instant vacation in Guantanamo Bay.
Sophisticated Big Data processing systems should ensure that security efforts are tightly focused on those overwhelmingly likely to commit acts of terrorism – not Grannies taking their off-spring for a two-week beachside break in Spain.
Virtually the same meta-data as the security services have is available to anyone and everyone wanting to sell you things. Don’t imagine that you have any privacy because the data really can be bought from the government and data collection companies. In practice, this means practically the whole world can purchase access to an immense amount of information about you.
The problem thus far has been integrating this data and making it work for the good of the vendor. Currently there is actually too much data, which is too diverse in nature, for it to be used effectively by anyone except a trained and skilled analyst: note the key word “currently”.
At the crudest end of the scale, you will note that when you have made an Amazon purchase, you will be instantly offered a range of other things which you didn’t want to buy but which Amazon thinks you should, or might, want to purchase.