Here’s the App That’s Hunting Down Terrorist Bomb-Makers
It’s a foggy morning in Manchester, England, when a bomb goes off at popular tourist center. Reporters, medics, and police shoot to the scene. The journalists begin doing what they do, describe what they see in front of them. The police begin taking witness testimony. The medics save lives. At some point, an investigator snaps a picture of what appears to be a fragment of one of the bomb components and uploads the snap to the Dfuze database. He recognizes it but he’s not sure how, so he adjusts the clearance settings so the photo can be shared not only with colleagues in the U.K. but also with contacts in the United States and beyond.
A special operations bomb technician at a base in the Middle East recognizes the component and tracks down similar ones. An investigator working at a different scene in Northern England has a similar eureka; he’s seen that part in a bomb-making manual collected from a investigation in Pakistan. The writer of that manual has a known address near Manchester. Agents pick him up within hours. Though no one has a picture of the actual perpetrator, a fast arrest is made based on how quickly agents were able to identify the weapon.
Crowd-sourced intelligence gathering has become a common feature of crime scenes that have captivated world attention. Consider the way tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram pics, shared widely, are influencing the politics of downed flight MH17 in Ukraine. But crowd-sourced intelligence can cause a mess as well. In the days following the 2011 Boston Marathon bombings, Reddit users poured through surveillance camera footage in the hopes of finding the responsible parties. The effect was something akin to a virtual lynch mob, or as the New York Daily News called it, a witch hunt.
It’s early days in the era of crowd-sourcing investigations into terrorist incidents. On the one hand, an interconnected community sharing information and pictures in real time can cover a lot more ground than a lone individual. But realtime information sharing works better when the crowd is made up of people with equally real expertise, and when the subject matter can’t be biased by the racial fears of self-deputized cyber vigilantes. In matters related to terrorism, authorities also have an interest in controlling the information so that classified data doesn’t go public.
Dfuze was first developed in the United Kingdom as Scotland Yard’s bomb database and is now owned by Intelligent Software Solutions, or ISS. It serves as means to share pictures and data related to terrorist incidents both quickly and with security. There’s a browser-based product called Dfuze Net, a mobile app called Dfuze Mobile, and an open-source intelligence database called ReportDesk that make up the enterprise client along with a few other parts. What Dfuze does is accelerate the process of highly controlled-sharing, which is critical in the hours after a terrorist event. “It’s mainly aimed at fast time dissemination of information from bomb scenes or from terrorist incidents,” Neil Fretwell an operations director at ISS and one of the creators of Dfuze told Defense One.
Users in Scotland Yard, U.S. Central Command, a mountain-top base in Afghanistan can all share pictures rapidly but in a way that lets the principal user or agency preserve the integrity of operations and investigations. It’s similar to how Facebook lets you share your weekend drinking pictures with some groups but not everyone, and do so while the pictures still have relevance. Because the files are encrypted there’s little worry of interception.
In describing why the system is necessary, Fretwell relies on personal experience, his days working the scene of the 2005 London subway bomb attacks. “I was down in one of the tunnels…the information was needed urgently back in the control center and at the other scenes. We were taking images, downloading them onto a compact disk…sticking them on the back of a motorbike with a blue light and physically running them back to Scotland Yard. It was nonsense,” he said. He and his colleagues knew that the Dfuze system needed an update.
Today, U.S. Special Operations Command or SOCOM, the Canadian military, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom use the Dfuze database to share information internally, with one another, and with bomb experts and other agencies in 25 countries.
“What has happened is what we suspected would happen. Lots of other organizations have seen the benefit of this national system and have come out and want to play as well. We’ve now got a lot of the laboratories who would normally send scientists to bomb scenes. The atomic weapons establishment in the UK, the forensic explosive laboratory, they all want to be part of this network as well.” said Fretwell.
The information in that network also extends beyond bomb parts. As Laine Napier, the vice president of ISS, told Defense News in 2013 “We gather information about individuals; we also gather information about addresses. … One address can have a number of suspects in it: vehicles, accounts.”
Dfuze shares a lot in common with the database management and visualization software and equipment that Palantir sells to the military and other law-enforcement agencies. Palantir is essentially a direct competitor and its products have received high marks from commanders in the field.
“Palantir maps out where the bad guys are,” one Marine told The Washington Times in 2012. “It maps out all kinds of stuff. Secreted stuff. Open source stuff. It brings it all together for the analysts to say, ‘Hey, here’s where they’re going to be putting IEDs.’ It’s pretty amazing for their found-and-cleared rate to go up 12 percent in three months. That is drastic,” said the Marine, referring to the time needed to identify and remove IEDs.
Dfuze is a bit different. In the U.K., possessing manuals on how to build explosives is itself a crime. So Dfuze was able to incorporate confiscated manuals into its database and share them, selectively, with clients around the world. Even though the Dfuze database only dates back to 1999, Defense News reports that the material in it can go back centuries, to protestor and anarchist patron saint Guy Fawkes, no less. It’s all the bomb evidence and information that Scotland Yard has ever collected but it’s also a thoroughly international community of bomb geeks and so the commonality among them is deep.
They get together for a user conference on a yearly basis. The next one takes place in Belfast in September. It’s sort of a bomb-geek Burning Man. But for ISS, it’s also a means to make sure that changes or improvements don’t alienate its small base of heavily inter-connected users.
“We figured out that if we could get them all together, they could argue amongst themselves about what enhancements should go in and which should not,” said Fretwell. “Then the user community comes to a consensus about what they want included and it happens every year.”
If you would like to play, too, your chance is coming next month. On Sept. 27, the company plans to roll a new product called iTrace for the European Union and the UN-funded outfit Conflict Armament Research. “We’re writing a portal for them that will be publically accessible, which deals with arms trafficking routes, initially in East Africa.” said Fretwell. He described a recent presentation of the prototype to UN representatives. “It appeared to go down very, very well.”