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Viewpoint Routers

One trend in intelligence gathering and analysis is 'open source' - and we're not talking Linux and GPL here. Simply put, as electronic media have proliferated around the world, more information that is useful for security purposes becomes openly available. The problem is digging out the useful bits, assessing their reliability, synthesizing and analyzing the bits together, then using the results to guide clandestine information gathering if needed.

Open source in this sense seems to have started inside the intelligence agencies, but you don't need a government ID card to play the game. For instance, the NOSI site is essentially a blog that compiles military intelligence with a naval skew into one convenient location. One might also consider Rantburg, run by an ex-intel guy, to be an open source site, with a bit of an attitude.

An alternative definition of the word "open source" appears here, as intelligence agencies begin to base more and more of their information sources on that which is available to the public — "open" knowledge, as it were. I must admit some curiosity as to how long the intel community has been using the term, but that answer is probably classified.

This concept of "open source" intelligence leads to an insight into blogging, and why it has grown so as a social phenomenon. Intelligence has, for many years, taken advantage of the human instinct for gossip; by collecting information that seems unremarkable at the time, collecting it together, and through massive human and computer effort turning the mass of information into coherent, organized data.

In David Brin's book "Earth" (spoiler warning! this gives away a key aspect of the plot), one of the key protagonists is a person working from home, observing and collecting information through a high-speed internet connection. As the book progresses, we learn that she wields a power stronger than any other single individual in the book; eventually, however, she is defeated by cooperation (and coincidence).

Like the protagonist in "Earth", the blogging community wields a great amount of power, mostly untapped. The events surrounding Trent Lott's dismissal from the government for holding a viewpoint unacceptable to the community demonstrate the power of the group to turn what was formerly described as "gossip" into immediate, highly effective influence over a regime. Unlike the book, however, we do not act alone.

Bloggers have, in a short period of time, begun developing the ability to take the same information that intelligence agencies; each individual collects the data they feel relevant, assembling it into a conclusion (or summary, or post) that is then shared with all who care to read it. Each of the thousand voices, using different information, reach different conclusions; sometimes in agreement, more often not, but in the end all are given a chance to share their view. Unlike before, however, bloggers have the Internet at their disposal.

The NSA has recognized the power of the Internet as a tool for distributing information; influenced by Gore, they developed at the turn of the century a private network that rivals the mass media in sharing information to anyone with access. Around the same time, online journals began changing their focus; many began discussing viewpoints along with the trivia of their day-to-day lives (the root of the thing we call "blogging" today); today, the propagation of information through the blogosphere has begun to rivel the AP wire, and may be approaching equivalence with the NSA's billion-dollar system.

We link to each other almost unconsciously, creating a community of a form that no one has seen before. The onus is upon each of us to make our voice heard; once that has been done, entry to the community is almost certain, with a minimum of barriers (be civil, be interesting, be unique). Within the community, information flows at a rate faster than any one human can discern; with a thousand of them looking, though, suddenly it's not so unmanageable. When I miss an article at New Scientist discussing the origins of pulsars, it turns up in the blog elsewhere in the community; in turn, I link to that article at my blog, thus ensuring that someone, somewhere, will see the information that they otherwise would miss.

Like ants (carpenter ants!), we're crawling the information space in its totality — even though each ant only sees a tiny portion of all that is out there. Unlike the government, however, we don't have to pay ten thousand people to do our work for us; each of us puts out a few hours a month (or, perhaps, a day), and perhaps a few dollars for connectivity, hosting, etc. In return, we're granted a skill that was formerly limited to corporations, governments, and (rarely) activists; efficient information routing. With this skill comes great power; if we use it responsibly, the world will change in ways that sci-fi writers have only dreamed of.

Update: Grammatical corrections, thanks to Kevin.


Due to the differences in the openness in Soviet and Western systems during the cold war, the Soviets took massive advantage of "open source"es in their espionage.

Currently, a similar situation exists for the U.S. and Communist China, where they censor much and we don't.

That said, I still prefer living in an open system, even if it is a strategic disadvantage, in some ways the advances it engenders makes it a strategic advantage.

See BUR- Spys for some interesting books on the topic.

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