Peter Beaumont: The Bits that Don't Fit

Too long for Twitter and too short for journalism

The real limits of intelligence

Bruce Schneier hits the nail on the head regarding a fundamental flaw in the NSA’s current modus operandi. In a wide ranging discussion of why – if US intelligence had prior intel on the August 21st chemical attack on Ghouta, it didn’t act – he comes to this conclusion.

The agency measures its success by amount of data collected, not by information synthesized or knowledge gained. But it’s knowledge that matters.

The NSA’s belief that more data is always good, and that it’s worth doing anything in order to collect it, is wrong. There are diminishing returns, and the NSA almost certainly passed that point long ago. But the idea of trade-offs does not seem to be part of its thinking.

The NSA missed the Boston Marathon bombers, even though the suspects left a really sloppy Internet trail and the older brother was on the terrorist watch list. With all the NSA is doing eavesdropping on the world, you would think the least it could manage would be keeping track of people on the terrorist watch list. Apparently not.

I don’t know how the CIA measures its success, but it failed to predict the end of the Cold War.

More data does not necessarily mean better information. It’s much easier to look backward than to predict. Information does not necessarily enable the government to act. Even when we know something, protecting the methods of collection can be more valuable than the possibility of taking action based on gathered information. But there’s not a lot of value to intelligence that can’t be used for action. These are the paradoxes of intelligence, and it’s time we started remembering them.

Of course, we need organizations like the CIA, the NSA, the NRO and all the rest. Intelligence is a vital component of national security, and can be invaluable in both wartime and peacetime. But it is just one security tool among many, and there are significant costs and limitations.

We’ve just learned from the recently leaked “black budget” that we’re spending $52 billion annually on national intelligence. We need to take a serious look at what kind of value we’re getting for our money, and whether it’s worth it.

In other words it is a classic case of metrics – in this case as false as the widely discredited body count metric of the Vietnam war. It confuses operational activity with the desired end result. In the case of intelligence gathering that is producing useful, actionable intelligence. A purely practical objection to the NSA’s intelligence gathering methods is that such a wide spectrum of collection always works towards the fringes of what you are really looking for – what is slipping through the net – rather than setting narrower targets that concentrate on what is really useful.

While not wanting to miss random terrorists – for instance – who might present a threat is understandable, there is a wider issue which is – what if, by spreading the gathering too widely, you make it actually harder to be effective?

Advertisement

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 )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on September 17, 2013 by .

Navigation

Schneier on Security

Too long for Twitter and too short for journalism

Lens

Too long for Twitter and too short for journalism

normblog

Too long for Twitter and too short for journalism

Brown Moses Blog

Too long for Twitter and too short for journalism

Peter Beaumont: The Bits that Don't Fit

Too long for Twitter and too short for journalism

The Daily Post

The Art and Craft of Blogging

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.

%d bloggers like this: