TCS Daily

Security in Numbers

By W. David Stephenson - February 14, 2003 12:00 AM

It's time to turn over part of the responsibility for Homeland Security to "smart mobs."

That's the term Howard Rheingold gave, in his book by the same name (Perseus, 2002) to "groups of people who are able to act in concert even if they don't know each other. The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways that were never possible before because they carry devices that possess both communicating and computing capabilities."

We learned on 9/11 about the effectiveness of individuals who were empowered by personal technology.

The only effective action to avoid further carnage came not from the Air Force jets that were scrambled, but from the passengers on Flight 93 whose relatives called on their cell phones to describe what had already happened.

Similarly, some people near Ground Zero kept in touch with their families even when cell phone circuits were jammed because their BlackBerry devices transmitted data in such small packets that they were able to still get through.

The market research firm Telephia estimates that 53 percent of urban Americans now have mobile phones. However, the Homeland Security program has failed to capitalize on that private sector resource to deliver actionable information when and where people can use it, which would both lessen the demands on first responders and help people avoid panic because they feel they know what to do and have the real-time information they need.

The private sector is ahead of government in leveraging the power of wireless devices in Homeland Security:

  • I have photos of the Ten Most Wanted Terrorists and information on how to contact the FBI on my SmartPhone. But I couldn't get that information in usable form from the FBI web site: I downloaded it from Town Compass, a software development and content management services company that enables businesses and organizations to publish content for delivery to handheld devices.

  • I also get terrorism alerts to my cell phone, but not from the Department of Homeland Security. I get them, on a real-time basis, from and from

  • A company named City Alert Texting System (CATS) will warn Londoners via terse SMS text messages on their cell phones about where attacks are happening and tell them what to do if they can't avoid the area. The information will be localized based on the postcodes of where individuals live and work.

Leveraging the power of technology-enabled "smart mobs" is necessary both for technological and manpower reasons.

Technologically, personal communications devices can, in addition to lessening the load on commercial networks in a crisis, actually expand networks' power and range. Commercializing a solution it developed for the military to create ad hoc broadband networks on the battlefield, Mesh Networks' Wi-Fi cards are a variation on peer-to-peer networks, in which each user who logs on becomes a broadcaster as well. Instead of clogging a conventional network, an ad hoc mesh network can operate in parallel, and, because it is wireless and requires little power, may still be available even if the landlines go down.

Equally important is the human aspect of "smart mobs" in a disaster. Rheingold talks in Smart Mobs about Reed's law, named for researcher David Reed. Reed argues that a network that allows people to form groups trumps the power of a conventional network: the square of the number of nodes in the network (Metcalfe's Law). By contrast, a "group-forming network" grows exponentially as the number of users increases - because they can form groups.

In an emergency, empowered users linked in such an ad hoc network would be able to act calmly and purposefully, allowing first responders and others to concentrate their efforts on helping those who are most directly affected - and those who weren't part of such a network.

It's time for the resources that individuals have already invested in to become a cornerstone of Homeland Security strategy and services. As Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network (UCAN), said to Federal Computer Week, "My cellular phone has more functionality and costs a lot less than our radio systems."

The power of those devices could become even greater with the proper federal regulations. If the FCC would stop giving extensions to wireless carriers and force them to start providing e911 services, which would allow precisely locating a given cell phone, it would be possible to customize evacuation plans based on your specific location at all times, as well as alerting you to, for example, a biohazard plume heading your way.

Half of us now have wireless communications, and you can bet that we'll use them in a crisis. The only question now is whether we'll use them purposefully and in tandem with official response, or in panic, simply to keep in touch.

W. David Stephenson, is principal of Stephenson Strategies, Medfield, MA,
a strategic communications consulting firm, and a senior associate with Mary Fifield Associates.

TCS Daily Archives