Patent Pending

XML and Homeland Defense: Don't buy the hype

Jon William Toigo

There's a lot of hype today surrounding extensible markup language (XML) and the Web services it will eventually enable.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, XML proponents have argued that the technology might have helped prevent the outcome by enabling "stovepipe" government systems and databases to share information more effectively. While a specific terrorist agenda and modus operandi might not have been gleaned in advance, government authorities could have been alerted of possible danger before the terrorists had a chance to strike.

It is true, of course, that some data could not be shared between the databases and document files of the Customs Service, the FBI, and other intelligence agencies because there was no method for these systems to share their data. However, the assertion that XML would have saved the day is highly suspect.

Depending on whom you ask, XML is either a replacement for electronic data interchange (EDI) ? an older inter-system data exchange technology pioneered by the Defense Information Systems Agency ? or an object-oriented middleware technology used to facilitate the integration of legacy back-end systems with newer Web-facing front-end systems.

In fact, XML is just another method for describing a document or process using certain codes that may eventually enable the "normalization" of information in a network, thereby facilitating its exchange between systems that use the same library of document descriptions.

A simple example of the potential value of XML is the creation of a sales receipt at a department store. Traditionally, you take your merchandise to the checkout line, the point of sale system looks up prices from UPC symbol tags and tallies up the charges and taxes for the purchase, and the resulting receipt is printed and handed to you. If you lose the receipt, you can forget about returning the merchandise to the store without a major hassle.

In an XML-enabled world, the receipt is assembled by means of an information exchange between a store inventory system, a pricing system, the point of sale system and the customer service system ? all of which share a common library of XML document descriptions for data interchange. The receipt you receive is also stored electronically in a customer service system to guarantee no hassle returns if you lose your copy. XML alleviates hassle and provides better customer service.

In this example, XML enables the processes and documents of several systems to work together, which in turn enables entirely new processes, such as the creation of the electronic sales receipt.

While the potential value created by new processes is significant, we nevertheless must be cautious in assigning magical qualities to XML. For example, the FBI recently received a tip that someone had purchased an assortment of stuffed animal toys, as well as a large quantity of BBs and other ingredients that might be used to create an explosive device. The sales clerk involved was concerned that the customer might be preparing to build bombs from the teddy bears, though he might also have been quite innocently buying Valentine's Day gifts, while also restocking supplies of several household chemicals, and buying BB's for his 10-year old's Daisy.

The point is that the concern raised by the clerk would not have been raised by the store's XML-enabled receipt generation system. While XML might eventually facilitate the exchange of information between disparate information systems, and enable the creation of entirely new ? but predefined ? processes or outputs, it will not magically add intelligence to processes by flagging the possibility of exploding teddy bears or burgeoning terrorist attacks.

Could XML be applied to intelligence collection? Yes. Could it replace analysis? Doubtful.

Jon William Toigo is an independent consultant and author of more than 1,000 articles and 12 books. If there is an emerging technology you would like Jon to look at, contact him through or via e-mail at

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