We have seen how Big Data is affecting the US military overseas and now Big Data is making its way to the southern border of the United States. Kestrel, the surveillance system utilized by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, will now be fitted on a 75-foot long Raven Aerostar aerostat blimp that can float at 2000 feet above ground level. According to reports, the vehicle will hover over the US-Mexico border in search of illegal entries, drug smuggling, and cartel activity that has made the region one of the most dangerous places in the world in recent years.
The Kestrel surveillance suite, named after the small falcon that hovers in the sky at around 60-90 feet before swooping down to attack prey as small as lizards and spiders, was developed by Arlington, Virginia-based Logos Technologies. The partnering firm which developed the blimp technology, South Dakota-based Raven Industries, took part in a “ three-member team deployed by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Customs and Border Protection component to help detect, identify, and track and individuals suspected of illegal activity along the U.S. border.”
The Kestrel surveillance suite is reported to be the only 360-degree persistent surveillance system for the aerostats line that is capable of scanning a city-sized area at once. The Logos website maintains that this feature alone makes it “virtually impossible to sneak up to, or through, a protected area” and can also “record every event that happens in a monitored area for up to 30 days.”
Similar to the drone program heavily utilized in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other remote places throughout the Middle East, this technology will allow DHS agents to find security holes in a city-wide frame, obtain information on how illicit goods are trafficked or smuggled, and keep an eye on other situations it might deem a threat to national security.
According to a press release from Logos Technologies, the mounted Kestrel system “is able to scan a large area and help CBP agents identify dozens of illicit activities in progress” and as a result “authorities apprehended 30 suspects on the first night of the demonstration alone and made a total of 80 arrests over the course of the week.”
Nevertheless, the amount of data this camera will have to capture and store is comparable to other systems used by the military. But unlike the military, the operating budget of the DHS doesn’t compare to that of the Pentagon. That means that if the entire US military is worried about the Big Data glut, any plans for DHS to manage this problem are likely to fall short. In an interview with John Applebee, manager of the border camera program for DHS, Danger Room notes:
“Applebee is up front about [this problem]. ‘They have the people,’ he says. ‘We do not.’ The answer, he hopes, will come from software. ‘We’re looking closely at the developments in the military and intelligence communities for ways the software and analysis can be automated, so can we use software tools as a tripwire to signal us and call agent to attention once [the camera observes] a movement has occurred in a given region,’ Applebee says. DARPA, the Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers, for instance, are interested in something akin to a “thinking camera” that pre-sorts imagery according to an algorithm based on what an analyst hopes to find.”
According to Bloomberg, the IDC (International Data Corporation) has predicted that “total data will grow by 50 times by 2020 and unstructured data (video, email, files) will account for 90 percent of this data stream.” If this is true, those in the Big Data world – especially those who gather and store large amounts of data—should expect that “current analytics platforms will decrease in efficiency and new data science approaches will be required to efficiently turn data into insights.”
Nevertheless, DHS understands the Big Data challenge just as much as those data analysts in the US military. In a speech to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 2011, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano reiterated to the audience what the department understands about the Big Data issue:
“It is about discerning meaning and information from millions – billions – of data points […] This is one of our nation’s most pressing science and engineering challenges. DHS is part of the nation’s Intelligence Community, which receives more terabytes of data each day than the entire text holdings of the Library of Congress. The National Counterterrorism Center’s 24-hour Operations Center receives 8,000 to 10,000 pieces of counterterrorist information every day. We receive data about all of this, and it is clearly too much to suggest that the simplistic ‘connect the dots’ analogy accurately represents what an analyst must do. Very quickly, you can see that ‘Big Data’ – more so than the lack of data – becomes the most pressing problem […] We therefore cannot overstate the need for software engineers and information systems designers. We need communications and data security experts. And we need this kind of talent working together to find new and faster ways to identify and separate relevant data. Then we need to organize the data in ways that analysts, agents, screeners, and guards can use, and we need to get it to them securely, and in real time.”
The Obama Administration has recently announced a large investment into the public sector specifically targeting the Big Data problem. Several government agencies and programs, which include the Department of Homeland Security, will receive federal investments to “bolster the tools and techniques needed to access, organize, and glean discoveries from huge volumes of digital data.”
Despite this, many companies are now trying to handle the demand from large, private enterprises and government. Several companies in Silicon Valley have developed various software that, instead of trying to analyze large chunks of data, “creat[es] output that can be fed into an analysis engine [and] as it captures data, the software features on-the-fly content conversion, transforming the information into a more usable and more easily analyzed format.”
Will DHS be able to use this technology in sync with the data obtained by Kestrel? It remains to be seen. What will happen, however, is that agents who are able to watch video in real-time or go back to a specific data point after a security threat is found will find themselves dealing with an entirely new method of border patrol. Government is—to some extent—bracing itself for the oncoming necessity of Big Data management.
As GovTech.com puts it, “education, law enforcement, social services and tax and revenue professionals collect and analyze more data than ever before to understand programmatic outcomes and improve their services.” In fact, all aspects of national security—even foreign policy concerns—will be understood, in part, by data analysts. Surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, security systems, record keeping—all of these will be completely dependent (if they aren’t already) on Big Data systems and those who understand how to manage and analyze them.