‘Social Software’ Could Revolutionize Intelligence

The New York Times magazine this Sunday published a must-read article about using blogs, wikis and other “social software” that is already revolutionizing the way people share information on the public Internet to improve the moribund information-sharing systems of the U.S. intelligence community.

And, yes, we did say moribund. The opening paragraphs of the article, by Clive Thompson, demonstrate just how behind the times the intel community is when it comes to information technology:

When Matthew Burton arrived at the Defense Intelligence Agency in January 2003, he was excited about getting to his computer. Burton, who was then 22, had long been interested in international relations: he had studied Russian politics and interned at the U.S. consulate in Ukraine, helping to speed refugee applications of politically persecuted Ukrainians. But he was also a big high-tech geek fluent in Web-page engineering, and he spent hours every day chatting online with friends and updating his own blog. When he was hired by the D.I.A., he told me recently, his mind boggled at the futuristic, secret spy technology he would get to play with: search engines that can read minds, he figured. Desktop video conferencing with colleagues around the world. If the everyday Internet was so awesome, just imagine how much better the spy tools would be.

But when he got to his cubicle, his high-tech dreams collapsed. “The reality,” he later wrote ruefully, “was a colossal letdown.”

The spy agencies were saddled with technology that might have seemed cutting edge in 1995. When he went onto Intelink — the spy agencies’ secure internal computer network — the search engines were a pale shadow of Google, flooding him with thousands of useless results. If Burton wanted to find an expert to answer a question, the personnel directories were of no help. Worse, instant messaging with colleagues, his favorite way to hack out a problem, was impossible: every three-letter agency — from the Central Intelligence Agency to the National Security Agency to army commands — used different discussion groups and chat applications that couldn’t connect to one another. In a community of secret agents supposedly devoted to quickly amassing information, nobody had even a simple blog — that ubiquitous tool for broadly distributing your thoughts.

But Thompson also reports the good news that some at the intelligence agencies have realized the seriousness of this problem and are beginning to experiment with new approaches to intelligence sharing using technology such as the new “intellipedia,” the existence of which was announced in October (pdf).

As Thompson’s article makes clear, use of such technology also necessitates more openness, because much of the value of applications like blogs, wikis and even “link analysis” search engines like Google lies in the ability of a large community to access, link to and evaluate the information that is disseminated using them.

Fortunately, the intelligence community also seems increasingly to recognize the value of open-source information. Last year, the office of the director of national intelligence created an Open Source Center to gather and analyze information from newspapers, the Web and other open sources.

There are dinosaurs in the intelligence business who will tell you thatinformation that isn’t secret can’t be called intelligence. But thisnonsensical view looks to be on the way out. As Gen. Michael V. Hayden said at a November, 2005, news briefing announcing the center’s creation, “Just because information is stolen, that doesn’t make it more useful.”

Perhaps it bodes well for this enlightened approach that Hayden, who was then DNI Negroponte’s deputy, is now the CIA director.

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