Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a $40,000 competition ostensibly to see examine the way communication works in Web2.0. The competition will see whether disributed teams working together online can uncover the location of large red weather balloons moored across the USA.

The ‘DARPA Network Challenge’ “will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems”.

All the headlines for this story have been verging on the amused (even The Guardian). Words like ‘whimsical’ and ‘wacky’ have been common. But it seems to me that this project has many underlying aims apart from those outlined in these superficial write-ups, not least of which are: how easily people in a culture of immediate gratification can be mobilised to state aims and in particular to do mundane intelligence and surveillance tasks (following the failure of simple old style rewards to work in the tracking down of Osama Bin Laden and other such problems), and 2, the prospects for manipulating ‘open-source intelligence’ in a more convenient manner, i.e. distributing military work and leveraging (a word the military loves) a new set of assetsĀ  – the online public, which is paradoxially characterised by both an often extreme scepticism and paranoia, but at the same time, a general superficiality and biddability.

DARPA, of course, was one of the originators of the Internet in the first place (as it continues to remind us), but the increasingly ‘open’ nature of emergent online cultures has meant that the US military now has a chronic anxiety about the security threats posed not so much by overt enemies as by the general loss of control – in fact, there’s been talk for a while of an ‘open-source insurgency’, a strategic notion that in one discursive twist elides terrorism and the open-source / open-access movement, and the CIA has recently bought into firms that specialize in Web 2.0 monitoring.

It seems rather reminiscent of both the post-WW2 remobilisation of US citizens in things like the 1950s ‘Skywatch’ programs (which Matt Farish from the University of Toronto has been studying) or more specifically, some of the brilliant novels of manipulation that emerged from that same climate, in particular Phillip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, in which unwitting dupe, Raggle Gumm, plots missile strikes for an oppressive government whilst thinking he’s winning a newspaper competition, ‘Where will the Little Green Man be Next?’

So, who’s going to be playing ‘Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?’ then… ?

DARPA's Big Red Balloons (DARPA website)

UK pushes forward with online data retention plans

Like Canada, the UK is pushing forward with new plans to force telecommunications companies and ISPs to retain online data, despite opposition from both the industry and ordinary service users. The New Labour govenrment had delayed the plans from last year, faced with the strength of the opposition and launched a ‘consulation’. The consultation apparently still generated 40% opposition, which one would think was enough to tell them that something was wrong. But, as I said last year, “the collection of such traffic data will still go ahead… partly at least because the Americans want it; there is pressure on many countries for this kind of data collection and storage – see for example, the FRA law in Sweden. Networking these databases together with others is a major aim of the FBI’s secretive ‘Server in the Sky’ project.”

However, now the UK plans go further than many other countries’ schemes in this area, as they would cover not only traffic data but also a whole range of data which would not normally have been regarded asĀ  traditional communications like social networking activity and even internal online gaming data. This would seem to be in line with US programs that regard the behaviour of – let’t not forget, fantasy – game and virtual world avatars as somehow indicative of real-world tendencies and practices (e.g.: Projects VACE and Reynard), an extremely dubious assumption and one which extends the reach of the state into people’s fantasy and dream lives.

The BBC story mentions an estimated 2Bn GBP (around $3.5 CAN) cost for this – which will no doubt be passed on to service users – but given the immense problems posed by some of this data, I would reckon that this could a massive underestimate, especially if one takes into account the UK state’s history of appallingly-managed computerisation and database-building schemes. The original plans also would have allowed all agencies empowered under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to make use of such data, and the RIPA consultation response from the UK government did contain some indications that some new agencies would be given powers of access, but I am still not sure whether the government will keep the list of agencies as long as it was in last year’s draft Communications Bill.