TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Open-Source Spying

Open-Source Spying

Monty Solomon (
Mon, 4 Dec 2006 00:51:56 -0500

The New York Times
December 3, 2006

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.

Something had gone horribly awry, Burton realized. Theoretically, the
intelligence world ought to revolve around information sharing. If
F.B.I. agents discover that Al Qaeda fund-raising is going on in
Brooklyn, C.I.A. agents in Europe ought to be able to know that
instantly. The Internet flourished under the credo that information
wants to be free; the agencies, however, had created their online
networks specifically to keep secrets safe, locked away so only a few
could see them. This control over the flow of information, as the 9/11
Commission noted in its final report, was a crucial reason American
intelligence agencies failed to prevent those attacks. All the clues
were there -- Al Qaeda associates studying aviation in Arizona, the
flight student Zacarias Moussaoui arrested in Minnesota, surveillance
of a Qaeda plotting session in Malaysia -- but none of the agents knew
about the existence of the other evidence. The report concluded that
the agencies failed to "connect the dots."

By way of contrast, every night when Burton went home, he was
reminded of how good the everyday Internet had become at connecting
dots. "Web 2.0" technologies that encourage people to share
information -- blogs, photo-posting sites like Flickr or the
reader-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia -- often made it easier to
collaborate with others. When the Orange Revolution erupted in
Ukraine in late 2004, Burton went to Technorati, a search engine that
scours the "blogosphere," to find the most authoritative blog
postings on the subject. Within minutes, he had found sites with
insightful commentary from American expatriates who were talking to
locals in Kiev and on-the-fly debates among political analysts over
what it meant. Because he and his fellow spies were stuck with
outdated technology, they had no comparable way to cooperate -- to
find colleagues with common interests and brainstorm online.

Burton, who has since left the D.I.A., is not alone in his concern.
Indeed, throughout the intelligence community, spies are beginning to
wonder why their technology has fallen so far behind -- and talk among
themselves about how to catch up. Some of the country's most senior
intelligence thinkers have joined the discussion, and surprisingly,
many of them believe the answer may lie in the interactive tools the
world's teenagers are using to pass around YouTube videos and bicker
online about their favorite bands. Billions of dollars' worth of
ultrasecret data networks couldn't help spies piece together the
clues to the worst terrorist plot ever. So perhaps, they argue, it' s
time to try something radically different. Could blogs and wikis
prevent the next 9/11?

Post Followup Article Use your browser's quoting feature to quote article into reply
Go to Next message: telecomdirect_daily: "TelecomDirect News Daily Update - December 04, 2006"
Go to Previous message: Monty Solomon: "Ruling Leaves Some Dish Viewers Without Networks"
TELECOM Digest: Home Page