A special kind of odd – a 2-page story of intelligence research

Jon screamed silently at the quantity of raw intelligence. There were thousands of suspicious persons, highlighted because the AI computers had seen patterns that matched people on the terrorist watch list. Jon had worked through the first two hundred, reading each person’s details. But the Artificial Intelligence engine was looking backwards to past events, and clearly did not understand the new kind of threats.

‘Have you identified the bomber yet?’ The words flashed on Jon’s screen from the intelligence officer managing the investigation. Jon groaned inwardly. He feared they would be working until late, and tonight was the anniversary of when he’d first kissed his partner.

‘We’re working on it,’ the lead intelligence researcher responded to the officer. ‘I’ve got five intelligence collectors on it, and a research assistant to help resolve the contradictions.’

Jon knew hew as seeing only one part of the picture. The others had their own specialities. His skills was at interpreting the mismatch of location reports from public locations, and bringing it together into a single view.

Jon could see a flicker on his screen as the lead researcher extracted the current version of his spreadsheet. He wondered what fun tools the researcher used to combine the results from the different collectors.

A new message appeared from the lead researcher, direct to him. ‘Jon, you’re just focussing on suspicious behaviour. It’s not enough. You need to list anomalous behaviour as well.’

‘You want me to list people who are odd?’ He figured lots of people were odd.

‘Not that. Imagine our suspect knows how we work and is being supersmart. But everyone leaves clues – even trained intelligence officers. Try looking for things that a normal person wouldn’t do. It’ll be small, everyday things.’ A pause. ‘You’ve an hour. Then we make a decision of whether to work the evening shift.’ 

She started typing examples into his spreadsheet. He watched, puzzling at the speed she could make judgements about people. ‘I can’t judge people as quickly as you,’ Jon typed.

‘Don’t worry about accuracy when you’re looking at anomalies. Go for first impressions – gut feelings.’

Jon focussed. The list was huge, and however hard he tried, he couldn’t work like the researcher. When he read a profile, his first impressions of people were confused, and it was only when he thought carefully he could make a judgement. The progress was so slow that it was becoming obvious that he would need to work late and miss the anniversary dinner.

‘If you want something odd,’ he typed to the research lead, ‘there are three I’ve marked. They are regulars at mosque – we’ve got facials – but they switch their mobiles off. Most people switch off as they reach the mosque, but these guys switch off long before that. Yet they’re not on terrorist watch lists.’

‘Wait! I’ll check against other intel collections,’ the research lead retorted. There was the flicker as she grabbed the sheet content.

Nothing more. Jon continued his work, but there were no more anomalies like his top three.

The next message from the research lead was not to him, but to the intelligence officer. Jon was cc’d. ‘We have a first suspect. Identified by Jon as anomalies. I’ve cross-checked against other sources. I have high confidence we’ve got our man.’

Jon smile. He’d be home in time for the anniversary.