Can Data Help Us Fight the ‘Forever War’?

The war on terrorism financing and the crimes that support terrorists is a “’Forever War’ of networks in a digital society that will never end,” said former Philip Mudd, a former Deputy Director of National Security, FBI, and former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center.

At the recent SAS Counterterrorism and Financial Crimes Forum in Cary, NC, Mudd addressed an impressive group of heavyweights from the financial world and representatives from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, US Attorney’s Office, US Treasury and IRS.

A consistent message throughout the day was that data is the best weapon they have to fight this war.  “This is such an enormous challenge because it requires the hunting of a revolution, not one specific group, and the half-life of an idea is potentially decades,” Mudd said, adding, “this is not a metadata issue, this is a content issue … to ascertain imminent threat [and] the only way to eliminate imminent threat is through lots of data.”

A senior executive at a major financial institution shared Mudd’s view, saying, “a small piece of data can make the difference for law enforcement to make their case.” She said when working with the FBI and law enforcement and internally within her current organization, it is critical to “not miss any of the available information or to miscommunicate the data.”

This is especially important because of the breadth and variety of the crimes that finance terrorism. The sale of illegal drugs, elder abuse, sex trafficking, money laundering, identify theft, Ponzi schemes and arms or human trafficking are all used to raise funds. There are even groups that use women who claim to be raising money for orphans.

Mudd was rousing in his discussion of the “Forever War,” saying that “Social media is critical because this war is more complicated in the sea of digital information, and is becoming even more complicated as there is increasing evidence of this metastasized revolution on US soil.”

Mudd explained that there are “homegrown kids who became excited about the idea of revolution.” The war becomes even more difficult as expectations increase, and the government is presumed to be able to not just find the imminent threat, but anticipate it. Even with data, the biggest challenge is for the analyst to “be agile and ask the right question.” This is only possible with the right data and with a “bigger set of data.” The privacy concerns of late could “potentially mean that there is less data in 2013 than there was in 2003.”

Mudd asked a provocative question: “What is my right to look at the data about someone who buys $100 of fertilizer at Home Depot, who has recently used extremist websites? And is that enough data for probable cause?” This challenge is about policy, privacy, access and similar issues, and less about the data.

“The ‘Forever War’ is not about terrorism, it is about data!” said Mudd.  He believes that over time “the government will own fewer secrets and people will own more secrets, while we will be living in a more and more transparent world.”  His example was that the “US embassy shut down in Iran over 30 years ago.Today, we are able to get more information on Iran, without an Embassy, than we were 30 years ago with a US Embassy on Iranian soil. Secrets will decline due to data availability.”

Yet, this increase in data and transparency won’t stop the “Forever War.” Gangs, child pornography and suspicious activity will continue. What’s important is “stopping the money.” So we are back to the age old questions. “What data is available? Can the data be combined? Can more creative questions be asked?” Mudd believes there should be an emphasis on training and expertise around how to ask the questions of the data.

Training must be ongoing, as methods of terror finance change rapidly. Dennis Lormel, president and CEO of DML Associates, LLC, said that there are “incredible changes in the Middle East, Syria, Yemen and Iraq that drive the changes terrorist make. They must move money differently, and we must identify current and emerging trends. From the standpoint of the terrorist, they must use the financial system to raise, move and use money. We have to stay on top of the changes and what we can do to identify the money, and be proactive in disrupting the flow of money.” This can mean “looking through terrorist financing to see if they are connected to organized crime.”

One speaker noted that the information provided on a Suspicious Activity Report, from the front lines, by tellers and bankers in our communities, can provide key information. This data can be mined to connect the dots.

A more recent avenue for funding terrorism is cyber-crime. Greg Henderson, principal in the Fraud and Financial Crimes Global Practice at SAS, said, “Identity theft gains a person access to funds that are then used for nefarious purposes, including terrorism. This can be done through submitting false tax returns, using someone else’s bank account, or using a false identity to travel into or out of the US.

Henderson went on to say that “Most cyber-crime is for the purpose of ‘for profit’ initiatives, not just wreaking havoc on the Internet. Data is again the key for finding the perpetrators of these crimes, and they want to stay anonymous. Somewhere, someone must use real currency in exchange for some type of goods or services. While the convergence of crime and terrorism is well known, and cyber-crime is more remote, there is less perceived risk by the perpetrator.”

Since this type of crime tends to focus on customers who don’t have millions of dollars to protect themselves as banks do, data is critical. The ability to sift through the big data in banking systems to identify anomalies in the customer’s behavior points the way to the customers who are compromised.

Jon Elvin, senior VP and Chief BSA/AML Officer of PNC Financial Services Group, Inc, called all participants of the Forum to “stay on course and remember their true North.” Jon went on to say that “every dollar taken out of the system is one less dollar in the hands of a terrorist or criminal and this helps to protect us all,” and is accomplished by the “passionate professionals who are difference makers.”

There were many difficult challenges discussed at the Forum, and data was the consistent theme. Many government personnel work in stove-piped institutions, with massive amounts of data, and more coming in every day.

Some agencies are moving to the cloud, while others have servers, virtual servers or mainframes. Most likely, it’s a combination of those. They have structured and unstructured data and all have requirements for data cleansing and management, to a greater or lesser extent. Finding and visualizing the right data is critical to stopping illegal behavior and making a case to prosecute those who break the law. Analytics can help financial institutions, and local, state and federal government to meet these challenges.

As Jim Candelmo, Executive Compliance Director of Ally Financial stated, these are “Not easy decisions; getting more done with less. The way forward is to “get tools to do the job better and more effectively, to positively affect your organization and community.”

So, as the US fights the ‘Forever War,’ data is the constant that will help banking, law enforcement and federal agencies protect US citizens and our way of life. Seeing all of these individuals representing such critical organizations in this fight work together means that if the best tools and solutions to understand the clues in the data and project the next trend are implemented, our democratic way of life will continue.”

Rebecca Garcia is a director at SAS Federal, where she focuses on the Intelligence Community and is responsible for ensuring SAS delivers analytic solutions to the IC to help solve mission and IT critical challenges. Garcia has supported this community since 1997 and has worked for Boeing, Northrop Grumman and KPMG Federal.

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