Clive Thompson’s article on today’s New York Times Magazine is an interesting reflection on what social software can and cannot do to help intelligence agencies gathering and analyzing information.
Among other things, Thompson discusses two proposals submitted for the Galileo Award, a competition created by the C.I.A. to collect ideas on how to improve information sharing among American intelligence agencies. The first proposal, written by C.I.A. Calvin Andrus, proposes to use wikis and blogs to collect and share information among agencies. By allowing linking of information and ideas, previously disconnected pieces of data are shaped and structured by the dynamics of a social network.
If analysts and agents were encouraged to post personal blogs and wikis on Intelink — linking to their favorite analyst reports or the news bulletins they considered important — then mob intelligence would take over. In the traditional cold-war spy bureaucracy, an analyst’s report lived or died by the whims of the hierarchy. If he was in the right place on the totem pole, his report on Soviet missiles could be pushed up higher; if a supervisor chose to ignore it, the report essentially vanished. Blogs and wikis, in contrast, work democratically. Pieces of intel would receive attention merely because other analysts found them interesting. This grass-roots process, Andrus argued, suited the modern intelligence challenge of sifting through thousands of disparate clues: if a fact or observation struck a chord with enough analysts, it would snowball into popularity, no matter what their supervisors thought.