The human factor trumps IT in the war on terror

Computer scientists at the University of Maryland are pushing the technology envelope to assist in intelligence gathering and analysis, but the people using the data may be the limiting factor in its effectiveness.

'While there is a lot of good information out there, it isn't getting to the right people at the right time,' said William J. Lahneman, coordinator of the Center for International and Security Studies in the School of Public Policy. 'The intelligence community's organization must change.'

Lahneman headed a panel of U. of Md. scientists Wednesday discussing the future of IT in the war on terrorism.

Effective information sharing is hindered by a culture in which knowledge is power. Implementing recent presidential directives on moving data across agency lines will require not only changing IT architectures, but will 'challenge the very culture' of those agencies, said James Hendler of the university's Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. 'I think that will be a tremendous challenge,' Hendler said.

While those reorganizations are going on, Hendler is focusing on the intelligence needed to use the Web effectively in gathering information and answering questions.

'How do we connect the dots? A lot of that requires a new kind of infrastructure on the Web,' he said.

The university's Computational Linguistics and Information Processing Lab is developing more-fluent automated translation systems for languages such as Arabic. Co-director Amy Weinberg said the lab also is working on how to rapidly ramp up systems to handle new languages as new threats develop. The lab participated last year with other university labs in a one-month Defense Department exercise to rapidly field a system to translate Hindi.

'Within two days we had a not-very-good, but workable information retrieval system,' that could do searches in Hindi, Weinberg said. 'By Day 25 we had a system with reasonable performance' that could sort documents by subject matter.

Some terrorist groups already are ahead of the government in their use of existing Web technology to win the hearts and minds of people, said Lee Strickland, director of the university's Center for Information Policy.

'There hasn't been any significant act of cyberterrorism,' Strickland said. But organizations such as Hamas are effectively using Websites for outreach in multiple languages, copying the best features of successful corporate sites.

'The terrorist organizations are more effective right now at using these communications than the U.S. government is,' he said. 'The government needs to do a better job' of Web propaganda.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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