Bombing database evolves into global framework for catching -- and possibly pre-empting -- terrorists

Bombing database for catching -- and possibly pre-empting -- terrorists

Information sharing is a key component of cybersecurity efforts, but the concept is certainly not limited to online threats -- or to government agencies in this country.  Many nations' law enforcement organizations, for example, have long worked together to gather and share evidence about bombings and other terrorist attacks.

Language barriers, incompatible software systems and parochial views on providing access to sensitive data often complicate such collaborations.   Increasingly, though, improved technologies are enabling agencies to rethink investigative methods and bring much better data into their efforts to identify and apprehend suspects.

Since 2000, Intelligent Solutions Software (ISS) has tried to encourage those efforts with a framework, known as Dfuze, that allows law enforcement agencies to collect and share photos, video, police reports and eyewitness accounts of terrorist attacks. Dfuze also helps agencies collect background information on terrorist organizations and other evidence that can be shared easily with colleagues in other countries.

According to current ISS Operations Director and Subject Matter Expert Neil Fretwell, the Dfuze system was originally made to collect bomb data for Scotland Yard, but over time it evolved into much more.

“This started out as a repository for bomb data. I’d go down to bomb scenes and gather information on components of [improvised explosive devices] and other bombs and enter them into the system,” Fretwell, who was once a bombing investigator himself, said in a telephone interview. “As the system got bigger and bigger and we started getting more clients, we started to grow, and we started to do different things,” he said

“So we started to look at other factors. What kind of device was used…a vehicle or just a device placed somewhere? It slowly built up from that to a database of terrorist groups, terrorist methodologies, firearms and other things," Fretwell explained.

Today, ISS’s Dfuze system is used by 45 agencies in more than 20 countries, including Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. In the United States, Fretwell said, Dfuze is used by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and by several elements of the military, although he declined to specify which ones.

With Dfuze, each agency has its own database and collects its own data. However, the system makes it easy for agencies in different countries to share information and data without having to convert files or worry about losing sensitive data.

“We don’t supply the data, instead each client obtains their own data and populates their own database,” Fretwell said. “We do have data sharing relationships between customers, as the system allows our customers to download encrypted data and send it to any other user. The receiver can put it into their system, and because it’s from the same mainframe, it looks the same and it automatically populates their database, which saves a lot of time and money.”

Dfuze has been used as a resource in many high-profile terrorist attacks, including the investigation of the Mumbai, India, bombings in 2008. The 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks around Mumbai killed 164 people, including 28 foreign nationals from 10 different countries.

“In the Mumbai attacks, a U.K. citizen was killed. When that happens they send out an advance party to advise local investigators how to conduct an investigation, and very early on we were given access to the IEDs that had been recovered,” Fretwell said. “We used the system to send images back to Scotland Yard, and within five minutes we received information back that the components that were found in the devices used were the same in devices found in Pakistan from a particular terrorist group. So we were able to say that this particular terrorist group was involved.”

In addition, the Dfuze system can help identify where a terrorist attack may occur within a given area, pointing out locations that are vulnerable and warning security personnel.

“You can never predict where or when a bomb is going to go off, but you can narrow your options by utilizing historical data,” Fretwell said. “So we’ve been able to use old data to see where an attack can occur or what areas of a place may be vulnerable.”

Because law enforcement agencies are always looking for suspects and trying to prevent attacks, ISS’s clients are requesting for more updates to Dfuze.  “It’s constantly in development,” Fretwell said. “Once a year we get all of our customers together for a brainstorming session, and we ask them how they want to see the software developing ... it helps us stay ahead of the game in giving the customer what they want.”

“At the moment," he added, "our customers are asking for live video streaming from drone technology as well as a few other things, so we’re working on that.”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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