When Public Meets Private in Intelligence

Today’s the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland, the sequence of events which wound up bringing me from Silicon Valley to Washington DC in 2002, and a stint working in the Intelligence Community. I notice today that no one asks me anymore, as they often did at first back then, why I was so intent on bridging the gap between DC and the Valley (broadly, not geographically, defined).

Today it surprises few when we do something unorthodox like invite Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos to appear inside an intelligence agency earlier this year, for a probing one-on-one at the AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium with several hundred IC professionals about the rapid changes in technology, views on public/private collaboration, and the impacts of AI and robotics on his business and theirs.

That rapid pace of change continues to accelerate, following its own Moore’s-Law-like curve, and daily one sees a blurring between how “intelligence” is performed in government uses and out among the public. To wit, check out this article from early August:

News Item: BuzzFeed News Trained A Computer To Search For Hidden Spy Planes. This Is What We Found … Surveillance aircraft often keep a low profile: The FBI, for example, registers its planes to fictitious companies to mask their true identity. So BuzzFeed News trained a computer to find them by letting a machine-learning algorithm sift for planes with flight patterns that resembled those operated by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security… First we made a series of calculations to describe the flight characteristics of almost 20,000 planes in the four months of Flightradar24 data: their turning rates, speeds and altitudes flown, the areas of rectangles drawn around each flight path, and the flights’ durations. We also included information on the manufacturer and model of each aircraft, and the four-digit squawk codes emitted by the planes’ transponders. Then we turned to an algorithm called the “random forest,” training it to distinguish between the characteristics of two groups of planes: almost 100 previously identified FBI and DHS planes, and 500 randomly selected aircraft. The random forest algorithm makes its own decisions about which aspects of the data are most important. But not surprisingly, given that spy planes tend to fly in tight circles, it put most weight on the planes’ turning rates. We then used its model to assess all of the planes, calculating a probability that each aircraft was a match for those flown by the FBI and DHS… The algorithm was not infallible: Among other candidates, it flagged several skydiving operations that circled in a relatively small area, much like a typical surveillance aircraft. But as an initial screen for candidate spy planes, it proved very effective. In addition to aircraft operated by the US Marshals and the military contractor Acorn Growth Companies, covered in our previous stories, it highlighted a variety of planes flown by law enforcement, and by the military and its contractors. Some of these aircraft use technologies that challenge our assumptions about when and how we’re being watched, tracked, or listened to. It’s only by understanding when and how these technologies are used from the air that we’ll be able to debate the balance between effective law enforcement, national security, and individual privacy.”

It has become commonplace to observe the dwindling distinctions in use of so-called “intelligence capabilities” between longstanding government intelligence agencies and so-called private-sector companies, e.g. news outlets or social-media platforms.  For a tour-de-force expression and stirring point-of-view argument you will profit from reading John Lanchester’s new and epic book-review essay “You Are the Product” in the London Review of Books, in which he treats Google, Microsoft, Facebook and the like with a critical lens and concludes:

[E]ven more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company….”

A short blog piece is not the place to examine fully this rich topic, but it is a good place to point out that I enjoy spending time helping all sides of this divide understand each other. By all sides, I mean government entities and officers (including intelligence and law enforcement), private-sector companies, and most importantly the public citizenry and customer base of those organizations. A great forum for doing that has been AFCEA, which this past week co-hosted with INSA the annual Intelligence and National Security Summit in DC. Along with helping oversee the agenda I had the opportunity to organize one of the panel sessions with my old friend (and former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence) Carmen Medina.

Our panel – very relevant to the above discussion – was on “The Role of Intelligence in the Future Threat Environment,” and our excellent participants addressed some gnarly problems. I tweeted many of the comments and observations (see my hashtagged feed here), and you can find more content and videos from all 15 sessions archived here.

Your suggestions on new approaches to these dialogues are welcome as always. As we commemorate the horrific surprise attacks of 9/11/2001, in a rapidly changing world where real-time surveillance is performed by more and more entities, governmental and commercial, it is increasingly important to engage in thoughtful – and sometimes urgent – discussion about who watches whom, and why.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: