Crowdsourcing military and intelligence operations

In yesterday’s post I wrote about New Model Army, a book by Adam Roberts. I wasn’t particularly enamored by it for a number of reasons but found a much better substitute. John Pollock writes in Technology Review, about the use of crowdsourcing during the Libyan Revolution that proves much more interesting that Roberts’ fictional description of a crowdsourced army.

There are a bunch of stories in here, each disconnected from the other but together making a significant impact (at least according to the story). One anecdote which could have fit in Roberts’ world:

…Steen Kirby, a high school student in the state of Georgia. As well as identifying weaponry, Kirby pulled together a group through Twitter to quickly produce English and Arabic guides to using an AK47, building makeshift Grad artillery shelters, and handling mines and unexploded ordnance, as well as detailed medical handbooks for use in the filed.

Perhaps more interesting (and disturbing if you’re looking to maintain the dominance of the nation-state) is the description of Rida Benfayed’s activities. He was a Libyan expat, living in Colorado who got connected via satellite internet, with his hometown of Benghazi. His access led to him becoming a conduit of information flowing into and out of the city. Then, someone claiming to be a retired intelligence officer began feeding him tactical information and military intelligence. It’s certainly possible the information was a back channel ‘unofficially’ authorized by a government entity. It’s also not outside the realm of possiblity that this was an ‘unofficial’ disclosure where unknown person(s) decided to take action on their own.

Given the technological capabilities available to everyone today, one wonders how genocides like those in Rwanda or Bosnia would play out today. Particularly when nation states are all doing the old ‘Huh? What? Where?’ shuffle to avoid having to actually do anything. Syria might be a good case (although things don’t seem to be working out particularly well there) to examine this but it might not. The Libya story seemed to require a technically sophisticated diaspora, media attention and some sort of narrative that encouraged others without an obvious link to the conflict to step in. I’m not sure Syria has that (and to be honest, can’t remember if Bosnia or Rwanda did either until it got pretty late in the game).

But this isn’t all about plucky citizens doing what they can to stop a dictator. There’s also the Frenchman. Convinced open source information could be valuable, he began building a network via social media sites to gather information. His leadership was (predictably) wary of any such effort but he countered quite nicely. Somehow he got permission to run an experiment where he ran with his network and compared it to a traditional intelligence methods. The article talk too much about specifics but I’m guessing that we’re talking about analytical work here where one group would get intelligence reports (mostly classified, processed through the particular organizational -NATO, French Navy, etc.- lenses) versus this open source ‘system’ where information is received.

He described the fear his open source method created among his leadership, in part, because they were unable to control it. I suspect a big part of military (and law enforcement and government) culture is about imposing your will on the environment around you. Whether it’s denying the enemy free movement in a particular area of operations, maintaining a curfew or adherence to traffic laws or imposing environmental regulations, it’s all about making reality conform to your vision. Using social media networks to receive intelligence involves (I think) being more mailable to outside influences.

Now it’s not clear if the wily Frenchman was a passive recipient of information (reading his Twitter feed in the dim glow of the Ops Center), if he had a more directing role (throwing out information requirements and hoping someone would reply and if (either in a sense of goodwill or appropriating the idea that ‘you gotta spend information to get information’) the information flow was one way or two way. Pretty important questions that I fear we won’t be getting the answer to.

Definitely worth the read…

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