I recently had the fortune to attend a seminar by David Orban on the ‘Internet of Things’ hosted by Singularity University at the NASA Ames Research Park. This subject is of deep interest with regard to the future collection of intelligence a fact acknowledged by the National Intelligence Council’s Disruptive Civil Technologies Conference (appendix F). The basic idea surrounding the ‘internet of things’ is that all things become nodes in a global network and to some degree act autonomously or to put it another way, “Our washing machines can ask for soap". This new or developing network creates a new category of object, known as a Spime [SPace +tIME] - a phrase coined by the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. A Spime was defined by David Orban as an object with memory, computing capacity, location awareness and sensors. These Spimes already exist just not yet to scale. The leading driver of spime networks was initially thought to be RFID tags but actually it is smart phones that are providing the most compelling current platform. A great example of one such, spime is an application developed for the iphone by WideTag - called WideNoise. This uses the iphone to collect decibel readings posting them to a map to determine where the quieter areas in the world are. Following the presentation we divided into groups to design a Spime.
Citizen as Sensor
The Spime I developed in conjunction with two of the SU students was an Intelligence tool – ‘citizen as sensor’. Taking as a start point the success that the Ushahidi project had in tracking both Kenyan post election violence and war-time activity in the Gaza strip we speculated on what an autonomous app might look like, which ran on a smart phone applying a similar theme. Using the idea of unique sound signatures our app, in its first iteration, ‘listened’ for sounds to report them back to a central database. Sounds such as gunfire, military vehicle movement or even militia on horseback provide a unique signature, which could then be used to provide a much richer intelligence picture of events on the ground. Over time other sensors could be layered into the app to monitor the environment for chemical or biological agents or to provide rapid analysis of images. As a system we conceived of this as an open environment. As a quid pro quo for participation, the citizen has the option to subscribe to areas of local interest for feedback, planning and awareness.
The technology clearly already exists for this kind of app, identifying unique sound signatures using a smart phone is present in shazam [which identifies the song playing in a particular locale] the collection of unique sound signatures is also beginning to extend in a variety of different areas including mosquito's. Therefore empowering global citizens to collect a richer level of local intelligence is clearly currently within reach and could be used for their own benefit.
Of course the downside of such a system would be the ability of the bad actors to also use and abuse the data. So far studies on the effectiveness of systems like Ushahidi have shown it remains effective even allowing for misinformation attempts. However, this remains a potentially insurmountable concern. Secondly is the actions of national governments who could shut down cell networks or put pressure on hardware providers to take certain applications down [this last scenario is becoming a constant with Apple’s iphone]. There are some potential solutions for this, P2P cell phone functionality seems like an obvious one, as well as the broad adoption of open platforms such as Android.
While Spime networks seem futuristic they are already here and present current opportunities to collect a richer intelligence picture than was previously possible. It takes little imagination to conceive of a DHS or even NYPD smart phone applications that monitors local conditions based on sound signatures and feeds them back to both government responders and the community of users. The future of intelligence collection may be sitting in the Apple App Store.