Top Secret America

Top Secret America is a really excellent project from The Washington Post with some excellent articles and classy and educative graphics. It traces the huge current US security-intelligence complex, and is partituclarly interesting for noting the massive private sector involvement. This isn’t actually entirely new – private technology companies have been intimately involved in both the manufacture and the servicing and operation of intelligence for a long time – look at the example of RCA and the early history of the National Security Association, for example. However, this blurring of the boundary between state and private sector now goes much further into the operations of intelligence. The Post alleges that “out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors.” That’s almost a third. And the database of companies involved is enormous – nearly 2000. The searchable database is also going to be very helpful in our current work at the Surveillance Studies Centre on the involvment of private companies in Canadian border control!

PS: I should be back up and posting regularly now. I’ve had one of my occasional anti-blogging periods!

Federal judge rules against NSA

A US Federal Court judge has ruled that the National Security Agency’s secret domestic wiretapping program of internal terrorist suspects, was illegal according to the New York Times. The activity violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which was put into place after the various inquiries into the activities of the FBI and NSA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I’ve said before, that’s hardly a surprise and don’t think this has got a whole lot to do with George W. Bush in particular. Intelligence services might claim to operate under laws but in reality their priorities are not bound by them.But there’s a kind of cycle of collective amnesia that goes on with these inquiries and rulings. This time, the NSA was basically doing almost exactly the same thing as in the earlier period. Some minor superficial changes will occur. People will forget about it. The NSA will carry on. Then in 20 years time, there will be something else that will reveal again the same kinds of activities. Cue collective shock again. And so on. It would take a lot more continual public oversight and openness for them to be held properly to account, and if they were, they’d be very different entities. But that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be held to account: the fact that most democratic nations have what amounts to a secret state within the state that may have very different priorities than the official government or the people should be profoundly worrying. Yet it seems to be such an enormous breach of the democratic ideal that it goes largely unnoticed.

CIA buys into Web 2.0 monitoring firm

Wired online has a report that the US Central Intelligence Agency has bought a significant stake in a market research firm called Visible Technologies that specializes in monitoring new social media such as blogs, mirco-blogs, forums, customer feedback sites and social networking sites (although not closed sites like Facebook – or at least that’s what they claim).  This is interesting but it isn’t surprising – most of what intelligence agencies has always been sifting through the masses of openly available information out there – what is now called open-source intelligence – but the fact is that people are putting more of themselves out their than ever before, and material that you would never have expected to be of interest to either commercial or state organisations is now there to be mined for useful data.

(thanks, once again to Aaron Martin for this).

MI5 in all kinds of trouble…

The British internal security service, MI5, has found itself in all kinds of trouble this week. First there was the report of the inquiry into the intelligence aspects of the 7/7 bombings in London. Although the report ‘cleared’ MI5 of wrongdoing (which was hardly unexpected!), it is clear that there was a catalogue of intelligence failures resulting from aspects as varied as a lack of funding, poor communication between MI5 and police, and simple mistake in judging the seriousness of the activities of those who came to the notice of MI5, particularly the two eventual bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer.

Then today, there have been serious allegations made in The Independent of the MI5 trying recruitment by blackmail on young British Muslims. Basically the modus operandi was to approach the potential informant and tell them that they were suspected of terrorist activities or terrorist sympathies, but that if they cooperated with MI5 then this would be overlooked. However if they refused then their ‘terrorist connections’ would be made more widely known.

All of this, as if it needed pointing out again, leads to the the clear conclusion that the security services need better and more transparent oversight, as well as clearer direction, and yes, perhaps more money (if they can behave themselves). The point is that properly controlled and justified targeted surveillance of genuine suspects (like Khan and Tanweer) is exactly what a security service should do, whereas mass preemptive surveillance (a la Met Police) or random blackmail is not. In fact the latter would tend to be counterproductive as in general, they will increase distrust in government and in particular, drive more young Muslims towards extremism.

FBI data warehouse revealed by EFF

Tenacious FoI and ‘institutional discovery’ work both in and out of the US courts by the Electronic Frontier Foundation has resulted in the FBI releasing lots of information about its enormous dataveillance program, based around the Investigative Data Warehouse (IDW). 

The clear and comprehensible report is available from EFF here, but the basic messages are that:

  •  the FBI now has a data warehouse with over a billion unique documents or seven times as many as are contained in the Library of Congress;
  • it is using content management and datamining software to connect, cross-reference and analyse data from over fifty previously separate datasets included in the warehouse. These include, by the way, both the entire US-VISIT database, the No-Fly list and other controversial post-9/11 systems.
  • The IDW will be used for both link and pattern analysis using technology connected to the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force (FTTTF) prgram, in other words Knowledge Disovery in Databases (KDD) software, which will through connecting people, groups and places, will generate entirely ‘new’ data and project links forward in time as predictions.

EFF conclude that datamining is the future for the IDW. This is true, but I would also say that it was the past and is the present too. Datamining is not new for the US intelligence services, indeed many of the techniques we now call datamining were developed by the National Security Agency (NSA). There would be no point in the FBI just warehousing vast numbers of documents without techniques for analysing and connecting them. KDD may well be more recent for the FBI and this phildickian ‘pre-crime’ is most certainly the future in more ways than one…

There is a lot that interests me here (and indeed, I am currently trying to write a piece about the socio-techncial history of these massive intelligence data analysis systems), but one issue is whether this complex operation will ‘work’ or whether it will throw up so many random and worthless ‘connections’ (the ‘six-degrees of Kevin Bacon’ syndrome) that it will actually slow-down or damage actual investigations into real criminal activities. That all depends on the architecture of the system, and that is something we know little about, although there are a few hints in the EFF report…

(thanks to Rosamunde van Brakel for the link)