Let the panic begin.
The FBI would like to build a giant biometrics database.
The Director of National Intelligence is about to argue that the intelligence community should gain access to all Internet traffic transiting the US.
These and other grabs for data are decried by privacy advocates and those who fear the rise of a police state in the US. This isn’t an unreasonable concern but it is largely unwarranted, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
Of more interest to observers of intelligence activities is the issue of quality vs. quantity and the slow creep towards doom that these efforts foretell. The fact that we are essentially attempting to gill-net bad guys is a fairly strong indicator that the intelligence community has yet to come up with an effective strategy against information-age threats.
This image is why the government is arguing that it needs more insight into what flows across the wires and cables and airwaves of this country. Its not a question of listening in to you whispering sweet nothings into the ear to your significant other, it is simply a case of – as the late Sam Kinison joked – going where the food is. That our intelligence agencies can intercept adversary communications is largely a given, they just want to do it from the convenience of the homeland, not some remote switch in the darkest hinterlands.
And quite a lot of data there is too. This is not a needle in a haystack problem; it’s a needle somewhere in an unidentified field in the western portion of Nebraska. The problem with vacuuming up data wholesale is that even with a lot of machine-based filtering, an intelligence analyst is left with a massive pile of rock in which may lay a speck of gold. Intelligence does not want, need, look at or even retain the VAST majority of what passes through the ‘Net, which is something privacy mavens conveniently leave out of their angrily worded press releases.
A more appropriate strategy in the long war – an intelligence war – is to put more feet on the ground in the world’s dangerous places. For the uninitiated it doesn’t necessarily follow that more human intelligence (HUMINT) will help solve a signals intelligence (SIGINT) problem, but that’s the dirty little secret here: this isn’t a SIGINT problem. Widespread surveillance isn’t usually what catches evil doers: tip-offs from informants, investigations and other methodologies do. Once you catch of whiff of what might be your prey, that’s when you should turn your surveillance capabilities on and determine if you found your quarry or are chasing a snipe. If this sounds like déjà vu all over again it is because it is a variation on the theme that played out over the last few decades as the community degraded HUMINT in favor of satellites.
This is not to say that SIGINT does not produce good intelligence – it most certainly can – but SIGINT today is in many ways much easier than just a decade ago. You don’t have to find a suitable physical location in a foreign land, you don’t have to build a facility, you don’t have to secure the facility, you don’t have to pay to relocate and house people to work in the facility: all you have to do is drive down the road, find a quiet closet and tap the line.
It follows then, at least to some, that generally technical problem begets a technical solution, but as recent history has shown, the last people you seem to be able to trust to get a successful technical solution off the ground is an intelligence or security agency. A whole planet’s data is useless if there is precious little chance of actually making use of it.
My brief stint in HUMINT was not the world’s most dangerous mission, but neither was it a cake walk. I know the hazards associated with putting boots on the ground as well as the reluctance to undertake “diarrhea missions.” But unless we start taking the grunt work of intelligence more seriously, and yes, risk adding names to the memorials of our intelligence agency memorials, the only course left to us is broader and deeper technical surveillance that only may result in a meaningful tip-off but will undoubtedly result in more political and legal battles that in the end will nullify the best laid plans of technical surveillance advocates.
This is no way to win the intelligence war.