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Could Big Data Have Prevented the Boston Marathon Attack?

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 widely exposed the fact that if the CIA and FBI had data sharing capabilities, law enforcement could have thwarted the worst attack in U.S. history. Ironically it came to light just a week after Robert Mueller took over as head of the FBI.

As word quickly got out of the CIA's suspicions about the terrorists who carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mueller's key task as the then new FBI chief was to rectify that problem. Nearly a dozen years later, Mueller is set to retire this summer and he's confronted with the latest revelation that the suspected bombers in last month's deadly Boston Marathon attack had ties to Russian terrorists.

The suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who reportedly had extreme views, was interviewed in 2011 by the FBI, though it later dropped the case. Now The New York Times points out that as Mueller's career comes to an end, while the two agencies may have improved the way data is shared, it still has a long way to go before it can predict with better precision a threat that's about to initiate such unthinkable acts.

Perhaps it's unfair to say Mueller didn't get the job done during his tenure -- law enforcement at many levels have thwarted dozens if not hundreds of attacks in the 12 years since 2001. It may be impossible to prevent someone determined enough to initiate an attack but in the age of IBM's Watson, predictive analytics is already making us safer.

There are numerous companies and approaches aimed at using big data to provide better intelligence. But we're not there yet. President Obama needs to find a successor who is savvy about the role big data can in predicting the risks without overstepping and encroaching on the privacy and civil liberties of innocent citizens.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 05/10/2013 at 1:15 PM


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