Person lurking by Zone Sierra. Nervous movement, potential improvised explosive device. The automated intelligence analysis flashed on Tessa’s screen.
The messages were being driven by a series of artificial intelligence engines – AI. There was AI analysing the images on the cameras across the sensitive area, more for motion sensors and microphones, another that converted it into locations, and yet another the watched for suspicious patterns.
Tessa knew her face had screwed up like the insides of a cabbage. She glanced sideways to see if her colleagues had noticed, but they were focussed on their own screens and studying other areas of the security operation. She looked the camera images. The target was male, wearing a Covid-19 style face mask and a cap that obscured most of his face, and his backpack was large enough to contain a substantial amount of explosive and shrapnel.
Tessa tracked back. The artificial intelligence had access to all the cameras, movement sensors and microphones across all the zones. It had tracked the suspect’s arrival, the times when he had gone backwards and forwards as if choosing the perfect spot, and now he was lurking. As a spot to detonate a bomb as the convoy passed, it was almost perfect.
Tessa felt blood drain from her face, like the reverse of a flush. People’s lives depended on what she did next.
Josef was excited. The streets had been almost deserted by the Covid-19 lockdown, with few cars, closed shops and nobody bustling to work. He could focus entirely on his task, without interruption.
The sun moved across the sky towards the edge of the tall clock tower.
Detachment is important, he told himself. It was what he had been taught by the professionals. I’ll get just one chance at this, and then it’s over.
Tessa reached for the alarm to her supervisor. In her headphones she could hear the hurried discussions, then the order to the mobile units to converge. Their responses were immediate and professional.
Tessa thought of the people heading straight for danger when most people would run. She realised that if something went wrong for the mobile units she would blame herself for not being faster. Her training had not prepared her for the fear that came with this moment.
Josef felt contentment. The spot was perfect – he had studied it for almost two years, but never found the perfect timing. He watched the soft spring light playing on the architecture. The time was almost here. He slipped off his backpack and brought it down between his knees. He reached into it.
Subject preparing to detonate weapon. The AI system was flashing its alert, and it was now being picked up by people across the control room and on the ground.
‘He’s premature,’ the voice of her supervisor cut through on Tessa’s headphones. ‘The convoy is not due for two minutes.’ There was a pause as if he was having a discussion with someone off-mic. Then he was back: ‘We have a situation recalculation. This may be a decoy: he detonates now, taking out the civilians behind him. He knows that we’ll stop the convoy just before the corner. That’s where the main attack will occur, at the weakest spot.’
Tessa hid her smile. She’d found this. The whole sequence was because of her.
Another pause, then a sharper command. ‘Target must be disabled, now-now.’
A different voice cut in. ‘Target’s face has been provisionally identified – matched with two recent recons of this spot. We have details coming in now.’
Josef took his camera from his backpack. It was always best to disclose the camera at the last moment. People acted differently when they saw a camera, even in a setting like this.
He breathed deeply and kept his mind steady. That was what the experts at the hospital had taught him. Don’t get too excited, keep your heart steady.
He saw the police car and motorbike approaching and ignored them as a distraction that would soon past. The picture was going to be perfect. He could feel his heart rate rising despite his best intention.
Then the vehicles stopped. The car was right in front of him, breaking the view.
Shouted orders. Josef struggled to understand what was happening, and why they were shouting at him. He felt his heart fluctuating wildly and muscles tightening across his chest. He reached in his jacket instinctively.
‘Weapon! He’s reaching for a trigger,’ the voice rang in Tessa’s headphones.
Then another voice cut in. An order. The inevitable one.
And in front of Tessa, the first details of the subject appeared: Aged 51, accountant, photographer, recent heart condition. Handle with care.
More on automated intelligence analysis
The story was written to illustrate automated intelligence analysis (artificial intelligence) in security, and what can happen when AI is used to automate intelligence processes. The idea came while writing about how Artificial Intelligence can entrench attitudes within intelligence agencies. It also overlaps with The secret judgement of the innocent – part of the ethical challenge of Duty of Care.
Another story about artificial intelligence within the security profession is Paranoia – a 2-page story of work overload and OSINT. And there is more to come.
A good read on how AI works, and its limitations, is Rage inside the machine, by Robert Elliott Smith. Publish by Bloomsbury Business, 2019.