An Ear To The Ground

Like many people, I opted not to comment on the 911 anniversary yesterday (it’s already six hours into September 12 here), although as one adversary pointed out, the date remains significant anyway as it marks the airing of the last ever Get Smart episode in 1970. The same pundit also reminded me that there are other such anniversaries that we do not remember so much…

It started to snow last night – finally, the first snow of the season and it’s spring already – and I got up early to check on things, well, really to see how heavy it was to determine if I could have a longer sleep-in this morning because the roads are closed…not such luck and it looks as thought the bulk of it missed us…

Anyway, now being awake, I couldn’t get back to sleep and so logged in to check emails etc before heading away for the day. Sitting there was an email from Ben Ianotta with whom I had done some work while he was editor of C4ISR Journal promoting a new venture, Deep Diver Intelligence. Always keen to check out new ventures and ideas, I had a look and hit the article on the renewal (or not) of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) first…[access is free til 17 September, then I’m not sure so will post a PDF of the article if it drops offline] It’s a good article and worth reading and thing about…

It’s an interesting issue and I think that the key point that may be overlooked in all the Big Brother paranoia is that this type of data collection is happening already in the commercial/corporate arena. Google now quite openly ‘reads’ our emails in order to customise the advertisements that it subjects us – under its ‘do no harm’ philosophy, would/should Google withhold potentially useful information of a national security nature if it stumbles across it?

The genie is already out of the bottle and we need to look at how we deal with it not cry into our milk about how we can’t put it back in. At least the FISA discussions encourage that discussion. We live in an information age now and we need to accept that things will change in respect to our ‘rights’. This is nothing new and simply a fact of civilization’s evolution: the rights that we have now are nothing like those of two centuries ago when our nations were settled and explored…things change, we need to get used to that idea.

Unless we all totally give up access to electronic information and opt to live in a cave in the hills somewhere, the simple fact is that information is being collected on us all the time. When you really get down to it, a lot of that information has been collected for a long long time: what has changed is that we now have technologies that allow us to merge much of the information. It’s still largely aspirational that this merging will enable us to join the dots a la Person of Interest – in fact, that is one reason I don’t like this series: because it does present  such an omnipotent perspective that the story just becomes boring – much like the old Star Trek ‘get out of jail free’ cards of time travel or fiddling the transporter cache – but my point is that this data collection is really nothing new.

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up…we’ll find you.” ~ Person of Interest voiceover.

A theme through the article, reflective of more the attitudes of intelligence agencies than the author, in my opinion, is that FISA has failed because it has not been able to directly identify and interdict a major adversary action. A couple of thoughts on this…

First up, we seem to be thinking/hoping that major adversary actions will be in a forms that we recognise i.e. think the Arizona, the Twin Towers, or the invasion of Kuwait. One might ask who really manipulated who in the Arab Spring which resulted in the demise of a number of stability-promoting regional strong men; or why we expect the worst of ISAF forces in Afghanistan but so desperately seek the faintest glimmer of anything remotely redeemable in our adversaries there; or whether last year’s Notting Hill rampage was really just a spontaneous boil-over?

Second, we seem to have forgotten that, in the contemporary environment as opposed to the Fulda Gap, it may be impossible to winnow out from all the noise, the key information that points to an impending action. This is what I call ‘intelitis’: the overpowering desire of many intel analysts to be able to jab a finger at the map, preferably in front of their boss’ boss, and state that Third Shock or Eight Guards Army will do X at X time on X day. Uh-huh…whatever…where were you guys for the end of the Cold War, Fiji Coups 1-57 or the Falklands War…? Huh? More likely, in the contemporary environment, that accumulated data may serve as a foundation for a rapid and precise response (do people get the distinction between ‘response’ and ‘reaction’?) in much the same way as CRIMINT rarely predicts which dairy/bank/service station is going to get knocked over next but is able to quickly narrow down the likely candidates…

A bigger concern than FISA might be the continuance of the post-Cold War trend for private industry to be leaps and bounds ahead of public technology and to be now quite happily exploiting this data for its own commercial ends. In other words, repealing FISA and like legislation is much like opting to fly everywhere to counter an IED threat – all you are really doing is ceding a whole chunk of your operating environment to someone else. Just because contemporary adversaries don’t want to play by the rules we like, doesn’t mean that they are not going to invite us to their next conflict: the information environment is now as much an operating environment as air, land, sea or space – the key difference is that it is the one environment where we are being walked all over.

So, anyway, take the time if you have an intel bent to have a look at Deep Dive…interested in your thoughts…

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