The Homeland Security Information Network, under construction as I write this, is built in part on peer-to-peer technology. It's designed to let various levels of governments share information quickly and securely, and on an ad hoc basis when necessary. The furthest the the system goes is to local public-safety personnel. What it does not do, at least not yet, is solicit information from average citizens. To me, this suggest insufficient recognition at high levels that in a world of asymmetric threats, the people who are not in official chains of command will be more and more important.
John Robb, who served in United States Air Force Special Operations and later ran an Internet research firm, helped me understand asymmetry and its consequences in the wake of the September 11 attacks. I asked himhow we could use the power at the edges of networks and society to counteract the bad guys.
Among his suggestions: "Build a feedback loop that greatly expands on the Pentagon's suggestion box but also narrows down individual questions. Marshall McLuhan first proposed for any problem there is a person or persons in a large population of educated people that don't sse it as a problem. We need a feedback loop that can filter up knowledge and insight. For example: If you have seen a loophole in airport security and have a solution as to how to correct it, there should be a mechanism for getting that information to the people that can make the change."
Note the direction of the information, from the bottom to the top or, more accurately, from the edge to the middle.
An extension of the feedback loop, Robb said, is to create much more targeted "knowledge networks" tapping into specific pools of information. "Our foreign service and military units don't have enough Pushtu speakers," he wrote just prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, referring to one of that Asian nation's dominant languages. "However, I am sure we have tens of thousands of Pushtu speakers living in the U.S. right now. Why not tap them for expertise in real-time?" How? By giving soldiers satellite phones to call Pushtu speakers who could serve as translators.
The public health world could take advantage of these kinds of techniques. Bioterrorism, in fact, may absolutely require them. Ronald E. LaPorte, a public health expert at the University of Pittsburg, has proposed an "Internet Civil Defense" using the power of networks to help neighbors watch out for each other.
When the stakes are this high, and the threat this different, we should be looking for the best ideas wherever they originate. I'm betting that the center won't hold if we waste power at the edges.