My love/hate relationship with the NYT Magazine grows ever stronger with the publication of a totally fascinating story of the intelligence community’s attempt to take advantage of the “wisdom of crowds”–albeit crowds of the secretive, martini-swilling, karate-chopping and debonaire kind, viz. “open source spying.” It’s a great article about the various US and defense intelligence agencies’ attempts to generate as much useful information as the blogosphere and wikipedia. Let me repeat that: an article about the US and defense intelligence agencies’ attempts to generate as much useful information as the blogosphere and wikipedia.
The fact that the blogosphere and wikipedia are the benchmark only confirms my suspicion of the US intelligence community as something akin to a keystone kops episode. On the one hand it seems obviously absurd that the intel community is not in possession of the most cuttingest edge stuff out there. Haven’t we been hearing since 9/11 about how the DHS is going to datamine everything from our consumer records to our cell-phone conversations to flight info in order to find–and torture into submission–those dastardly terrorists? And the FBI doesn’t even have a blog? WTF? On the other hand, the questions raised by the use of blogs and wikis in intel raise the stake on the stale debate around the reliability of wikipedia rather considerably. God forbid the blanket authorization to conduct water-boarding that we just granted our leaders rely on the intel community equivalent of Wonkette… or wait, maybe it should, I’m unsure.
I first heard stirrings of this kind a few months back in a Reuters news story about Intellipedia. The idea of a wikipedia for spies is so obviously intriguing that it was almost an inevitable story for the magazine. It starts with a similar gambit: a young geek obsessed with tools takes a job at an intel org, expecting to meet Q and learn about the super-hightech terrorist-nabbing tools. Realization: the bloated government bureaucracies, our first line of defense, are struggling with Windows 95 and Netscape 4.0– or their top-secret equivalents.
But apparently a few young geeks seeking to serve the nation have noticed… and have started to create the classified equivalent of Web 2.0. The article does a great job of imagining what might have happened (if hindsight=20/20) before 9/11. Were intel agencies actually furiously adding comments to each others blogs, hashing out the meaning of scattered bits and pieces of info, checking technorati and recent changes obsessively, pinging and trackbacking their way into the heart of the plot–well then maybe the course of history might have been different. It’s a nice thought experiment. Of course, the idea raises certain paradoxes: to get such rich information, nearly everyone from the beat cop in Minnesota to the flight school operaters in Arizona to Bond himself, needs to be constantly blogging and updating their tips and infos–0wn1ng the “Al Qaeda plots” page, so to speak. But if they do so in a public forum then the plotters themselves only need check their rss readers to know just what US intel knows. By contrast, keeping the Intellipedia secret reduces its effectiveness the more secret it is. Not only that, but the very problem of terrorism is that we don’t know who are terrorists and who are not–so we have no way to exclude them except to be completely paranoid. Sharing and secrecy each produce their own kind of knowledge/power order. Or as the article puts it “social software doesn’t work if people aren’t social.”
Another aspect of the story that intrigues me is the comparison/connection to academia. Web 2.0 luminaries Clay Shirky and David Weinberger are both cited as consultants to the DoD and CIA respectively, and as might be expected are actually both skeptical. Just building it doesn’t mean they will come, and the organizational culture of the intel agencies is so obviously a roadblock. The devotion to secrecy is clearly central to everyone’s identity–I mean, why join up if you aren’t seduced by the secrecy of it all–that the idea of getting people to just put more stuff out there seems a truly uphill battle. As one person cited puts it: “The time is past for analysts to act like ‘monastic scholars in a cave someplace’ he added, laboring for weeks or months in isolation to produce a report.” Indeed, the concerns about secrecy, while obviously valid in some very small percentage of cases, are summed up for me in the image of spies hoarding their information in shoeboxes kept underneath their desks. Let me repeat that: apparently, spies keep secrets in shoeboxes kept underneath their desks.
Academics often treat their productions the same way– particularly in anthropology where there is an incredibly overdeveloped (though probably justified) sense of the misuse and abuse of anthropological knowledge by government agencies. What the article displays, as George Marcus pointed out to me, is that even within the intel community the problem is just getting your report heard. And if CIA operatives can’t get heard, why in the world would they care one wink about the finer points of neoliberalist assemblages?
And Weinberger points out that, much like the tenure system in academia, spies careers depend not only on getting their reports heard, but on getting credit for being the one who made the information available. Thus, an incredible incentive to keep material secret. Ironically, it’s an incentive that is the same in some quarters of anthropology: what if the CIA were to use my monograph on the culture of islamic fundamentalists in Detroit to oppress, exploit, harass etc? Better to keep it secret and become obsessively concerned about the “ethics” of collaborating with the security/intel communities. What seems far more likely is that 98% of the time, research will simply be ignored.
The article closes with what actually sounds like a clever innovation to me; the National Counter Terrorism Center, which actually physically houses spies from all the agencies under one roof. As the CIO of the NCTC says: “we call it carbon-based integration.” Actually getting people together to work on problems is still, despite the miraculous promise of Web 2.0 (and 3.0 and beyond) a distinctive and distinctively productive kind of activity–and when its combined with the presence of a rich infosphere–potentially powerful.
 Let me just note a certain irony here: when the term “open source” was chosen to replace Free Software in 1998, the only people using it were the CIA/FBI to refer to unclassified sources of information. I find it charmingly ironic that the author trades, albeit in a quite confused way, on the slip between open source in its historical meaning and wikis and blogs as “open source” software.