Intelligence is no dark art

Overcoming the barriers to intelligence sharing

John Coyne

Government and governance, National security | Australia

26 October 2017

Rather than racing to develop a national criminal intelligence system, Australia could spend more time mapping its current information landscape, John Coyne writes.

Over the last month, my Australian Strategic Policy Institute colleagues Anthony Bergin and Isaac Kfir have explored the benefits, barriers and pitfalls of the Commonwealth government’s intelligence sharing push. Anthony Bergin argued that it’s time for an ‘intelligence big picture in Australia’: an integrated national security information sharing system. Isaac Kfir’s response warned of the challenges and downsides of intelligence sharing.

When talking about intelligence systems, processes and outputs, it is important to situate the discussion within intelligence theory. To do otherwise is to risk making inaccurate assumptions about the strengths and limitations of intelligence sharing. Isaac Kfir’s comments on the value-added nature of intelligence is a good starting point for further exploration of the nature of intelligence, and its implications for an integrated national security information sharing system.

Over the last 15 years, the application of intelligence methodologies has rapidly expanded in both the private and public sector. The concept of business intelligence in the private sector has found its way into the lexicon of management vocabulary, literature and research. At the same time, popular culture has painted intelligence as the omnipresent ‘magic bullet’ to all national security problems – an idea that is more science fiction than fact.

Unfortunately, in the race to exploit the value of intelligence, our collective understanding of intelligence as a process and an output has been diluted. Last century saw pointless debates over whether signals intelligence or human intelligence makes for a superior collection discipline. This has paled in comparison to the perception this century of government agencies hoovering up great volumes of data. While the idea that information is power still rings true, the acquisition of more information in terms of quantity doesn’t necessarily guarantee greater power.

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

Seldom is intelligence – be it secret (in the sense that it’s not publicly available) or otherwise – able to offer a decision-maker complete certainty. Rather, intelligence is an evidence-based hypothesis accompanied by an associated estimate of its probability.

Good intelligence tradecraft involves employing a range of analytical techniques to ensure that the validity of different explanations are tested. It is this tradecraft that ensures that information is contextualised during the analytical process.

However, more often than not, the reporting that is passed as intelligence is more likely an information management or knowledge management product. Information products are devoid of any analysis and simply state the facts or data as collected. In contrast knowledge management products collect and collate what is known to identify the unseen. Whilst there can be little doubt that these types of decision support materials have untold value they do not permit the application of inductive logic to develop competing hypothesis for meaning.

Anthony Bergin’s arguments in support of a national security information system touch upon two of the three key recommendations from the US government’s 9/11 Commission Report – failure of collection, and failure of collation. Bergin’s comments, and the Australian government’s emerging home affairs policies, are more concerned with sharing data already held by government than with capturing new data, and rightfully so.

In Australia, the disjointed nature of the government’s information collection apparatus, in terms of both classified and open sources, is a product of policy evolution shaped by legislative barriers. For almost 15 years, western governments have established intelligence fusion centres (see here, here and here), comprised of officers from various departments, as a structural response to overcome barriers to sharing. At a cultural level, Australia’s domestic and national security agencies have moved from ‘need-to-know’ to ‘dare-to-share’ cultures.

Today’s fusion centres have access to an unprecedented quantity and variety of raw data or information. Sifting through that deluge of data in the required timeframes is now, more often than not, beyond the capacity of a single intelligence professional.

Unsurprisingly, most intelligence professionals don’t want access to more data, but access to more of the right data at the right time. With an increasing number of analysts collating data, the task of joining the dots between disparate data points is ever more difficult. Unsurprisingly, increasing the number of data collators may not result in any tangible improvement in output or outcome. This has been a key driver for the introduction of AI and big data analytics.

More on this: The devil in the detail | Isaac Kfir

Isaac Kfir’s comments correctly highlight the need to create a transparent and accountable information eco-system, in terms of information collection and collation, in support of our intelligence systems. This needs to be proportional to the task at hand. To be clear, much of the information we are talking about here is unclassified – already more than 70 per cent of the data held by the American Intelligence Community is unclassified open source information.

Many of the answers to the challenges examined by Kfir relate to a system’s logical controls for information – the technology used for identification, authorisation and accountability. The ad hoc nature of current control measures will likely be solved through the introduction of whole-of-government information architecture. With such architecture, access can be strictly controlled and audited based on a genuine need to know.

It’s important to note that access to information in any new intelligence system will likely be controlled by a variety of means. Legislative protections such as privacy laws and the dissemination of financial intelligence will continue to underpin access control logic. Put simply, a distributed intelligence system doesn’t mean more people will be accessing your data at a nominal level.

The introduction of logical controls in Australian law enforcement case management systems has ensured that unauthorised access to information is detected and remedial action applied. You need only look to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s (IGIS) annual and public reports to see the extent of the oversight of the Australian Intelligence Community and their level of legislative compliance.

Nonetheless, Kfir’s comments reinforce the important role that the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) and IGIS will need to play in all stages of the next generation of national security information systems.

People are often concerned about the role of the private sector in national security and intelligence. While the profit motive of the private sector cannot be ignored, let’s not forget that these kinds of companies are usually filled with people with vast experience in government and a strong commitment to national security. These companies provide access to highly skilled specialists who might not otherwise be available in the public sector.

In responding to the security challenges of the future, our national security decision-makers can’t afford to view structural and organisational barriers to innovation as reasons not to try. Rather than racing to develop a national criminal intelligence system, perhaps more time needs to be spent mapping our current information eco-system. Agencies such as ACLEI and IGIS should then be actively involved in ensuring the compliance and integrity of whatever comes next.

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