The New York Times Sunday magazine has a long article this morning on US spying and their computer systems entitled "Open Source Spying". While it speaks to how the 1995 systems still in place in 2004, the next generation of systems also have issues. This post is just notes as I was going along reading through it as I think it describes issues inherent in the internet. This passage gives one some yips:
"One of my daily searches is for words like ‘Afghanistan’ or ‘Taliban,’" I was told by one young military analyst who specializes in threats from weapons of mass destruction. (He requested anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak to reporters.) "So I’m looking for reports from field agents saying stuff like, ‘I’m out here, and here’s what I saw,’" he continued. "But I get to my desk and I’ve got, like, thousands a day — mountains of information, and no way to organize it."Right? That's right, right? Because it's on a blog it has to be true, right? And because it is out there on the internet and I found it it must be the best information, right? Because unindexed self-authorized self-aggrandizing sources of information are always the best sources of information, right?
Adding to the information glut, there’s an increasingly large amount of data to read outside of Intelink. Intelligence analysts are finding it more important to keep up with "open source" information — nonclassified material published in full public view, like newspapers, jihadist blogs and discussion boards in foreign countries. This adds ever more calories to the daily info diet. The W.M.D. analyst I spoke to regularly reads the blog of Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor known for omnivorous linking to, and acerbic analysis of, news from the Middle East. "He’s not someone spies would normally pay attention to, but now he’s out there — and he’s a subject-matter expert, right?" the analyst said.
In response, they appear to have embraced wikiality which is an improvement over unindexed self-authorized self-aggrandizing sources of information in that it is self-indexed self-authorized non-aggrandizing information....except it is aggrandizing in that it is not anonymous:
Rasmussen notes that though there is often strong disagreement and debate on Intellipedia, it has not yet succumbed to the sort of vandalism that often plagues Wikipedia pages, including the posting of outright lies. This is partly because, unlike with Wikipedia, Intellipedia contributors are not anonymous. Whatever an analyst writes on Intellipedia can be traced to him. "If you demonstrate you’ve got something to contribute, hey, the expectation is you’re a valued member," Fingar said. "You demonstrate you’re an idiot, that becomes known, too."This is good. One of the huge failures of the web with any number attached is the rise of the false authority figure. If your name and your career are associated with the fact and opinion you are promoting, there is a chance that it will reflect the actual rather than claimed level of skill brought to the discussion. But even that gets you only so far:
A spy blogosphere, even carefully secured against intruders, might be fundamentally incompatible with the goal of keeping secrets. And the converse is also true: blogs and wikis are unlikely to thrive in an environment where people are guarded about sharing information. Social software doesn’t work if people aren’t social.Not only will people guard the best information - there is a naive attitude to the quality of information that is available.
"If you want to know what the terrorists’ long-term plans are, the best thing is to read their propaganda — the stuff out there on the Internet," the W.M.D. analyst told me. "I mean, it’s not secret. They’re telling us."Why is that? Why do we assume terrorists are such boobs that they have no idea about deception? Did the IRA, mafia, biker gangs or any other peril not include deception and infiltration in its bag of tricks? One of the greatest risks to information in the Cold War was from high-level moles. Are China and Al Queda patently incapable of engaging in moleism? Such useful but open (even internally open) aggregation simply makes a mole's life easy. But do not fear - the medium is the message after all:
...most wikis and blogs flop. A wiki might never reach a critical mass of contributors and remain anemic until eventually everyone drifts away; many bloggers never attract any attention and, discouraged, eventually stop posting. Wikipedia passed the critical-mass plateau a year ago, but it is a rarity. "The normal case for social software is failure," Shirky said.This is interest as I watch the role of GX40 move into more of a smaller group while beer blog readership expands. There is little global interest in me but there is plenty of interest in beer. Simple fact.
A very useful illustration of this peril can be found at Peter Rukavina's site this very week. On a Web 2.0 laced whim he went to Italy to a small mountain village he only had information about on the web. A day or two in it was looking grim as the village was apparently abandoned or at least devoid of people enough that he had to drive down to the coast to get food. Yet, all was well in the end as the sun eventually did come out and other tourists and locals showed up for an actual purposeful task, the shaking, netting and clubbing of trees to make the fruit fall, which would have occurred with or without the Internet or Peter Rukavina - which is exactly why it turned out so well for him. All he needed to do was join in something that was actual.
Beer, an olive harvest in a small village and the terrorist risk to western civilization are all things of a sort: they are real with proven results and a link to other purposes. By comparison, blogs, wikis and the internet as a whole still largely lack that connection. They are still as much Witgenstien's pink elephant [Ed.: warning - that link may just illustrate the point] in the next room as anything - you cannot prove them wrong or right so they are as likely as not to reflect reality. Beer, olives and terrorists are much more like Samuel Johnson's kicking of the rock.
The article in The New York Times makes a far less satisfactory point - that if we do not move into wikiality, we become the stolid Soviet blutocracy. There is no reflection on whether both the proposed Spy 2.0 world and the old ways are wrong, that infiltration, usurpation and assimilation of these groups might be best...unless they want us to believe they haven't thought of that. Would it not be more likely that the West has a string of its own education camps going now in poor Islamic nations, creating loyalty and networks to create our own unsuspecting moles? Would that not really be how to deal with the reality of the situation?