Tradecraft in the Long Tail

Fact: Chris Anderson, WIRED editor in chief and author of the Internet-era classic book “The Long Tail,” also runs a couple of Ning social networks focusing on what the intelligence community would call IMINT, or imagery intelligence – specifically DIY Drones, “a site for all things about amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): How-to’s, videos, discussion and more,” and PictEarth, “a Social Network used to collect, link and geotag RC, UAV/UAS or Kite derived Earth imagery for use in 3D Globe Programs including Google Earth, Virtual Earth, World Wind and ArcGIS Explorer.”

Analysis:  With these sites, Chris Anderson is promoting what he calls “Crowdsourced Aerial Imagery.”  In the mission statement for DIY Drones, he writes that “Reasons to make your own UAV range from a fun technical challenge, student contests, aerial photography and mapping (what we call “GeoCrawling”), and scientific sensing. We are primarily interested in civilian, not military, UAV uses here.” (Emphasis is in the original.)

Let’s presume that individual DoD or intelligence-agency personnel have an interest in such issues, and maybe even in spending their personal time by keeping current and following the crowd’s interest in such topics, by participating in these new social networks.  One can then assume that others from foreign intelligence might have some interest in tracking those very IC personnel, by observing their activities within social networks (and not just Ning ones).  No spectacular logic needed for that.

The CIA has had some challenges in understanding their field presence within the Long Tail. 

 Today’s Washington Post has the following tidbits from the long-running case in Italian courts accusing CIA personnel in absentia of snatching radical Islamic cleric Abu Omar in Milan in 2003.   Italian police “found a trove of clues on the home computer of the CIA’s chief spy in Milan… street maps on the CIA officer’s computer that had been downloaded from an Internet travel service, The maps, he said, showed the quickest routes from the cleric’s mosque and home in Milan to Aviano Air Base… Recovered computer files also showed that [a CIA officer] used Expedia to book a plane reservation to Cairo around the time Nasr was kidnapped…”

The Post story today also recounts that “The computer also contained a list of about 70 hotels around Milan that Italian investigators used to help identify CIA operatives who played a role in the kidnapping… Italian authorities have said they were astounded to find the evidence left unprotected on [the officer’s] computer. But according to the testimony and court records, the CIA repeatedly failed to cover its tracks during the operation. While most of the CIA officers used false identities, they left a long paper and electronic trail that enabled Italian investigators to retrace their movements, court documents show.”

The point I’m addressing is not about collaboration among intelligence analysts and officers, within secure networks — the “Intellipedia revolution” advocated ably by people like the IC’s Chris Rasmussen.  Rather, it’s about the desire of intelligence professionals to operate in today’s Internet-enabled world, without leaving overt traces which can directly point back to them and reveal patterns or identifiers they don’t want to leave.  That desire could be expressed as planning to operate on the grid, but appearing to be off the grid – except when they perhaps find it in their interest to leave a constructed “false-flag” grid trail.

If you think about it, the ordinary Internet user probably has the same thought sometimes.  My wife complains about a certain competing search engine, not out of corporate loyalty to my employer, but because she’s become annoyed by the overwhelming ubiquity of targeted ads, in search results, emails, RSS feeds, etc. 

If you want to witness these motivations further, just check out the “Welcome to the Underground” blog, particularly last month’s post “Staying Off the Grid, Vol. 1.”   That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

I’d recommend that users, IT professionals, and policymakers all stay current on secure, private, and reliable computing practices, as with Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing initiative.  Anyone who isn’t careful in the Long Tail today about the information they’re scattering for potential abuse in identity-theft or fraud, may find themselves with the same regrets as that Italian-based CIA officer, certainly wishing now that he’d understood more about cookies and web traces.

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2 Responses

  1. […] Tradecraft in the Long Tail […]


  2. This is a great article. Expect additional articles about living off the grid real soon.


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