Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Intelligence agencies need our help, not our scorn - Part 1

The person apparently responsible for leaking the recent United States National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM project has conducted a film interview with a reporter from the Guardian newspaper. In the interview, Edward Snowden – the presumed “leaker” – talks about his motives for releasing the top secret information to the public.

Initially, Mr Snowden makes it very clear he views the government in a fundamentally incorrect and unhelpful way. As pointed out in previous posts, governments are made up of individual people following certain flexible rules of administration to discover the best, most prudent path for their society. 

Governments are not an overarching construction devoid of human emotion or bereft of mistakes and foibles. The problems facing each person in life are also experienced inside governments, with the proviso that more resources can be marshalled to deal with the issues at their root cause and hopefully repair or redirect the societal woes.

So how does this pertain to spying? In regards to intelligence agencies, the world’s oldest profession will always be an integral part of a mature nation-state or society when it comes to figuring out the best path for organising society. 

No matter what one’s philosophical or ideological position, it always will be necessary to know what is going on over the hill or in the other camp. There is nothing more important in statecraft than having the best knowledge possible about what could be coming next. A leader that doesn’t want to know, or can’t know, what is coming next because of a personal belief system or ideology is irresponsible and will not last long in office. 

This leader will suffer from a dearth of intelligence, and will bring suffering on the society they govern as a result, because even if this leader does not want to gather intelligence, their rivals will have no such qualms. And superior intelligence always wins.

What Mr Snowden does not seem to understand is that one of the greatest and most responsible acts for United States Presidents - or any world leader – is to develop their country’s intelligence assets during their time in control. 

It is constantly surprising just how important a robust and far-reaching intelligence apparatus is for almost every aspect of modern society. Economics is enhanced with knowledge of the best move to take in trade discussions. Military might is magnified by clear predictive information. Societal needs can be understood and dissected. 

This knowledge does not need to be gathered aggressively or against domestic laws. Intelligence is a process of understanding how the world works and finding the best path forward from the view of a particular society.

Far from being an excuse for the revealed NSA program, if any of history’s great leaders had the ability to develop the tools that the United States intelligence community possesses today, they would not hesitate to develop them. The reason is simple: the good of a society is bigger than any one individual. This is not an Orwellian dystopia. This is statecraft in a pure form, and every nation does what is best for the love of one’s own.

The principle obstacle for any intelligence collection and analysis is, and has always been, the staccato and fluctuating completeness of information. All the puzzle pieces are never spread on the table patiently waiting for the analyst to come along and put them together. The information gathered is always partial and the skill of the analyst is in locating patterns without the full understanding of where everything fits. 

There is no outline to begin with, the connecting curves don’t always intuitively go together, and the hues on the puzzle pieces generally don’t make sense. The box is no help, because there is no box – the puzzle never came with a box. The pieces just started appearing spontaneously and now people want to know if it’s a picture of a dog or a spacecraft.

The only thing making this impossible job easier is the amount of potential pieces of the puzzle on the table. The more information an analyst has, the more refined and nuanced is the summary and guidance and the clearer they can display the pattern pulled from the noise. The pattern might be incorrect, and generally is, but the more data arriving on the table makes the final analysis stronger. This is where the usefulness of the PRISM project appears.

Two great advantages to intelligence gathering over the recent decades are instantaneous communication and widespread inclusion. The first is the spread of the internet and the dominance of this new medium over ever-greater facets of our lives. 

Almost every person on the planet with access to electricity can now use a communications tool so vast and awesome that kings and queens would never have let it out of their palaces. Almost no one uses land-line phones or physical postage to communicate with their fellow humans in the 21st Century. Everyone who can, uses the internet. This has created an enormous amount of inherently accessible information that intelligence agencies are ideally suited to gather to better fit the pieces of their puzzle together.

The second is that the very people being targeted by intelligence agencies are no different to their peers and fellow citizens in how they communicate. Criminals, terrorists, and enemy agencies all rely on the internet in some form to go about their business. 

There’s really no escaping the lure and efficiency of the World Wide Web. Military minds talk about the “domain” of cyberspace in the same breath as the domains of sea, air, land, and space. The way they see the patterns of human interaction in the online spectrum points to the pervasiveness of the internet and the undeniability of this technology. 

And because those who would do us harm are using the same domain as the intelligence and law enforcement agencies in their communications, it makes perfect sense for a responsible leader to funnel the resources of agencies towards developing a dynamic process for monitoring the human animal’s most prolific means of communication.

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