How intelligent is our strategy?

by David Moss

March 2009


Just look at Sir David Omand GCB’s discussion paper for the ippr Commission on National Security for the 21st Century.

1. Sir David says (p.13):

Dissemination describes the policies and processes necessary to get the intelligence into the hands of those who will use it, and sometimes to those who have no idea that they need to know or indeed might prefer not to know the assessments being reached by the intelligence community. The word conveys a helpful sense of sowing seeds for later germination.

A false note? Isn’t this the echt language of the advertising account executive, “we chose the slogan to position you in the upper quartile of the fertile-mothers-with-healthy-babies space ...”? The problem is always the same. These marketers only look at some words and ignore others. Sir David refers to the “intelligence cycle”, for example. Bicycles make me think of French onion-sellers. Is that an association Sir David means to create?

2. Famously, Sir David says (p.9):

The realm of intelligence operations is of course a zone to which the ethical rules that we might hope to govern private conduct as individuals in society cannot fully apply. Finding out other people’s secrets is going to involve breaking everyday moral rules.

He also says (p.11):

That shift has profound implications for the extent to which the intelligence community must work as a community and the stronger relationships with law enforcement and homeland security policymakers that are required, along with the wider relationships with overseas services. It has implications for a change in relations with the media, for the role of oversight and for the degree of public confidence in the ethics of the intelligence community.

I am pretty sure that he would do better to argue that what the secret intelligence services do is ethical. Instead, he chooses to argue that it is simultaneously both ethical and unethical. And that’s logically impossible.

3. Sir David says (p.9):

To the huge changes happening in the world of Osint [open source intelligence] must be added the growth of a third category of information from which intelligence for national security may be derived, one that might be labelled ‘protected information’, or Protint. This is personal information about individual that resides in databases, such as advance passenger information, airline bookings and other travel data, passport and biometric data, immigration, identity and border records, criminal records, and other governmental and private sector data, including financial and telephone and other communications records.

Oh dear, not another credulous believer in the reliability of mass consumer biometrics. How many times do I have to tell the world, they don’t work? My last three letters on the subject to the Home Office Scientific Development Branch are unanswered. See for example the 8 January 2009 effort. These letters were both emailed and posted to the Home Office’s Direct Communications Unit. Not only are they unanswered, they are unacknowledged.

Even if the Home Office and the security services close their ears, that won’t make mass consumer biometrics work.

4. Sir David wants access to all this Protint so that the intelligence services can mine it. It sounds practical. But is it? It all depends on pattern recognition. What is the pattern of suspicious behaviour? What is the geometry of a terrorist’s or a criminal’s behaviour? The intelligence services don’t know. They could be wasting their time building IMP. They could be destroying political capital while making no return. That’s not very practical, after all, is it?

This point has been made before. See Vordick durch Sprungtek. And here (01/14/09 at 10:28 am). Perhaps I am not a credible witness. Ben Goldacre says the same thing, data mining can’t work. And he’s a doctor. So!

Never mind what I think or what Ben Goldacre thinks, what do you think? What do you think using Protint does to the public confidence Sir David says he wants and needs to preserve?

5. We have come across this ability to believe self-contradictions before. Sir David believes that the intelligence services are simultaneously ethical and unethical. And our Prime Minister believes that he can enhance our liberty by destroying it.

They both reach that confused state from the same starting point – we live in a new world. The Prime Minister’s famous speech on liberty makes no fewer than 34 appeals to the alleged fact that we live in a new world. And Sir David opens his discussion paper with (p.3):

… the risks the UK faces have changed beyond recognition in recent decades, so confounding all the old assumptions about national defence and international security.

I say unto ye, verily, beware the new world merchants. Unless you really were born yesterday.

6. Sir David says (p.14):

Finally, the customer community, especially in the military commands, will have to be increasingly able to rapidly pull the intelligence material needed to generate situational awareness and enjoy the ‘’ ability to find past products and perhaps be told, as you are when you search for a book on Amazon, which other products previous users of that item also found useful.

And (p.15):

… the intelligence cycle [peeling back the onion skins, you see] is represented with a further box highlighted as a connection between the elements of the cycle, representing user interaction. Unlike the classic description of the cycle, it is therefore no longer a loop but an interactive network.

The point here is to try to capture the thought that what will increasingly need to be created are virtual communities of users*, analysts and mission managers with a variety of access possibilities. There will need to be greater inter-visibility of the work of each of these groups, without compromising analytic independence. The need to respond to the terrorist threat has already driven such changes in relation to that subject, but this process should develop more widely across the national security agenda. To take one national security priority, that of domestic resilience, there will need to be overlapping circles of information reaching all the way out from the secret agencies to the commercial operators of the critical national infrastructure.

Golly! Amazon and Facebook. In one paper. Very modern. But just remember, we still live in the same world we have always lived in.


* See for example the BBC’s story, Whitehall defends ‘fantasy world’?

David Moss has spent six years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

© 2009 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd