Although still in the planning stages, next year’s National Level Exercise will likely include analysis of the role of social media during a major cyber event, according to sources participating in the exercise.
The annual National Level Exercises (NLEs) are multi-agency events involving the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Defense Department, various state and local governments and many others. The NLEs are designed to improve the national response to major catastrophes, including earthquakes, terrorist attacks and nuclear incidents. Next year’s exercise, NLE 12, will focus on cyber issues.
Expected to last about four months, NLE 12 will involve four elements. The first will test various technologies and their ability to share classified and unclassified information. The second will continue assessing the national cybersecurity response plan, which already has undergone some testing through the Cyber Storm III exercise. The third element will evaluate supervisory control and data acquisition systems, which control significant parts of critical infrastructure, including the electrical grid, nuclear power facilities and utilities. The fourth part of NLE 12 will focus on the continuity of government operations, including communicating with the public.
“The fourth exercise will look at how the federal government and states can address the issue of public communications, how the public will be notified of a cyber event, what kinds of technologies will be used to keep the public informed,” says Michael Chumer, a research professor with the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “This is all coming together as we speak. I don’t know to what level or extent they’re going to do it, but they’ll be looking at the implications of social media as a potential predictor of what may be going on.”
Chumer works closely with personnel at the U.S. Army’s Homeland Defense Technology Center, Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, to research and develop information systems for the Defense Department and civil agencies.
Gene Olsen, branch chief for the Joint, Virtual and Awareness Technologies branch within the Homeland and Battlespace Transformation Systems Directorate at Picatinny Arsenal, says that social media may prove useful in predicting and reacting to a wide array of catastrophes, including terrorist attacks, natural disasters and disease outbreaks. It emerged as an important element in this year’s NLE 11, which focused on a devastating earthquake along the New Madrid fault line, the same fault line that caused the earthquake of 1812, which resulted in the Mississippi River reversing course.
“We recognized that there will be a huge social media piece to something like this. Social media could help us post-disaster, if we inject that into the existing decision support systems that the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security use, that could help them to coordinate their response effort,” Olsen says.
His team adapted an existing DHS technology to do just that. The technology, a middleware data translator designed to improve interoperability between disparate systems is known as the Unified Incident and Command Decision Support (UICDS) system. It is pronounced “you sids.”
Olsen’s organization has an interagency agreement with DHS on UICDS and is endeavoring to get approval for the technology to be used on defense networks and systems so that the Defense Department can better share information with other agencies. “Our folks here built UICDS adapters and went out and started pulling social media information and putting it into the existing decision support systems being used for NLE 11.”
With those UICDS adapters in place, exercise participants were able to harness social media to “make our responses more informative and more timely and to save more lives,” Olsen explains. Now his team has submitted a proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to further develop social media’s predictive potential. “That led to a joint proposal to DARPA to look at social media as a predictive analysis tool before an event rather than just a post-event tool. Can we automate it and look for things that are trending today.”
A social media predictive analysis tool would be most helpful for man-made catastrophes, such as terrorist attacks, but if farmers begin Twittering about their animals behaving oddly, it could indicate a coming earthquake or other natural disaster, he explains. Or the chatter from hospitals could indicate a pandemic breakout.
Olsen says he doesn’t expect a response from DARPA until after Christmas. “Regardless of whether we get funding, we have identified an area for future research. This won’t go away whether DARPA says ‘no’ to the proposal or not,” Olsen says.