Computer upgrade tops FBI wish list

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Since Sept. 11, the FBI has budgeted tens of millions of dollars to turn its massive collection of computerized case files, memos, tips and phone intercepts from an investigative black hole into a mother lode of predictive intelligence.

If the effort succeeds, by Sept. 11, 2004, it will have replaced today's system -- so antiquated and cumbersome that many top FBI executives have never learned to use it -- with a high-tech brain that instantly culls years of records and eventually will simultaneously check databanks in other government agencies, public records and the Internet.

And that's just the beginning.

By Sept. 11, 2011, the FBI hopes to use artificial intelligence software to predict acts of terror.

The goal is to "skate where the puck's going to be, not where the puck was," said Robert J. Chiaradio, who until recently oversaw data system improvements as a top aide to FBI director Robert S. Mueller III. "We have to get ourselves positioned for Sept. 10th, not Sept. 12th."

The technology plan reflects a belief that the chief weapon against terror will not be bullets or bombs. It will be information.

Some remain skeptical

But intelligence experts, computer scientists and civil libertarians remain skeptical about whether the FBI can -- or should -- reverse 94 years of entrenched bias in favor of shoe-leather detective work, and turn itself into high-tech domestic CIA. And they caution that using databases to foretell acts of terror is still a sci-fi fantasy.

"These techniques assume that the past predicts the future," said Rakesh Agrawal, an IBM Corp. scientist and a leading "data mining" expert. "But what if the future is completely different?"

Before Sept. 11, no one had crashed a hijacked plane into a skyscraper. Before Jan. 27, when a blast ripped through Jerusalem's commercial district, there had never been a female suicide bomber.

FBI leaders insist that effective data mining -- sifting information from voluminous electronic files -- will overcome such obstacles.

They point out that rudimentary data mining has already become commonplace. Any Internet user can instantly search more than a billion Web pages for, say, "Middle Eastern flight-training students." The popular search service Google ranks results by popularity -- pages that receive the most visits and are most-often referenced by other pages are listed first, which is one formula for making sense of more information than a person can digest.

Retail stores analyze data on millions of purchases, then draw conclusions on buying habits to pitch discounts or new products.

"Just as Wal-Mart's trying to figure out what people's buying patterns are, some of that logic can translate into law enforcement," said Mark Tanner, the FBI's deputy chief information officer.

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