Intelligence: the devil is in the detail

Harmonising intelligence sharing comes with significant challenges

Isaac Kfir

National security | Australia, The World

18 October 2017

The road towards intelligence sharing is paved with good intentions. We need to carefully consider the challenges and downsides, Isaac Kfir writes.

At the recent Council Of Australia Governments meeting, a big push was made towards harmonising intelligence sharing through establishing a National Facial Biometric Matching Capability and concluding an Intergovernmental Agreement on Identity Matching Services. The goal is to make it easier for security and law enforcement agencies to cross-reference information and identify people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity.

It is hard to argue against such reform when, as Anthony Bergin pointed out, under the current system if someone with no criminal record in Queensland wanted to purchase a firearm, a Queensland local police check would not necessarily flag that security services have concerns regarding that specific person.

But even the best ideas require careful consideration of potential downsides and cautious implementation. As such, there are some issues to be tackled as the government begins the process of harmonising intelligence.

First, it is important to understand that intelligence is a specific form of information. Information becomes intelligence when it is contextualised, assessed, and attributed a value. One key challenge that we face in the world of intelligence is that we collect a tremendous amount of information, but unless that information is converted into intelligence, it has very little value.

Second, intelligence sharing operates horizontally and vertically. The former refers to intelligence that is shared across government entities, for example when the Australian Federal Police (AFP) share information with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Vertical information sharing occurs when information is shared between entities which could mean, for example, between the AFP and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. It may also refer to information shared between a government agency and private contractors, who increasingly play a role in converting information to intelligence.

More on this: Getting the intelligence big picture | Anthony Bergin

What is often missed in the conversation about intelligence sharing is that granting access also means establishing new vulnerabilities. By having a uniform platform to share intelligence, many more individuals will have access to sensitive intelligence.

Additionally, there is also the risk of having the information stored in a specific venue, which could become a target of a cyber or conventional attack. For instance, imagine the harm that could be inflicted on Australia if someone was to hack into the National Archives, or the Department of Human Services, or the land registry of a particular state or territory, with the goal of corrupting as opposed to destroying some of the information stored in those facilities. One hopes that such facilities have high security, but as is often the case, terrorists are good innovators.

The cost of harmonising intelligence is likely to be substantial, which may explain why only very large corporations are able to enter this space, which they then dominate. In the United States, the intelligence-contracting industry is valued at US $50 billion and is divided up between a handful of companies.

Governments are constantly challenged to reduce their expenditure, which often leads them to turn to the private sector, which by its very nature does things for a profit. The question, therefore, becomes, what is in it for the private sector when it comes to intelligence? How can the government assure the public that information which is given to government to help regulate society and provide vital services such as health and safety will not be exploited by the private sector?

A third important issue is that contextualising information is very much dependent on one’s social outlook. Organisations, including government departments, develop a specific set of assumptions, values, and beliefs. Take immigration, for example. Until the early 1940s, in the United States, immigration was under the remit of the Department of Labor, with the rationale that the country needed workers. Between the 1940s and 2002, immigration lay in the Justice Ministry. This was because those seeking refuge need to meet certain legal criteria, including those who were economic migrants. In 2003, immigration was moved to the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The underlying premise was that because migrants can pose a security threat, what must occur first and foremost is a determination as to what, if any, security threat the applicant poses.

There is also a need to recognise the impact of bureaucratic politics, which mean that agencies have a natural wariness towards sharing information. This is especially true in the case of security-based entities, which are trained to compartmentalise information and adopt a secrecy model to protect sources.

More on this: Does Australia need a Director of National Intelligence?

The US sought to harmonise intelligence sharing following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) establishing the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The Director serves as the head of 16 intelligence agencies, as well as the president’s chief intelligence adviser. The goal behind the formation of the DNI was to help ensure that information and more importantly intelligence is not lost or missed. And yet, despite IRTPA, Executive Order 13388 (2005), and the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which together mandate a baseline for intelligence sharing as it pertains to terrorism, information is not really shared effectively due to a culture of suspicion or organised chaos that stems from having too much information.

Finally, it is a truism that the more we learn, the more we realise what we don’t know. Such sage Aristotelian observation explains the propensity to acquire more information. This is especially true when it comes to security, and why security measures are often indelible.

It is the quest for complete security that has led the Department of Homeland Security to adopt a new rule allowing it to collect social media information on immigrants. This includes information on how these individuals interact with permanent residents and naturalised citizens. US consular officials are now permitted to request five years’ worth of social media handles and email addresses for national security.

As Anthony Bergin has argued, we should now be rolling out a national criminal intelligence system. However, to make the system effective, we must ensure that as we design it, the government engages with civil society to ensure that the new security architecture not only addresses contemporary and future challenges, but also respects and upholds core values that lie at the heart of Australian identity.

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