Reading Clive Thompson’s article on spying in the New York Times and Chris Anderson’s interesting blog post on it, i t occurred to me yet again what a colossal waste of intelligence, human and financial resources and genius is spent on the war against terrorism through means less effective, less desirable and less successful, in the long term, than the same technology and tools used to strengthen communications between and within communities, nations and States.
Clearly, the effectiveness of Clive’s envisioned open sourced spying model is not what is in question – it is the desirability of establishing online what is effectively a mechanism of the commons to stifle free speech and the freedom of expression, in addition to forces already aligned to the same cause – such as repressive governments, dictatorships and regimes that control the flow of information.
I have noted earlier the development of systems to help the US better understand the world and its place in it. The problem with these systems, and indeed an open source spying model, is that it tackles the symptoms of terrorism and does little to explore and flesh out its root causes. Indeed, as it is increasingly the case in many countries, those who do try to do so are seen to be partial to and allied with terrorists. Accordingly, given half a chance, blog-vigilantes will take every opportunity to spam or “expose” those who they feel are a “threat” to “national security”. The essential anarchy of the blogosphere only guarantees that the resulting warning of threats to be equally anarchic – and the more “successful” the system gets, the more information agencies will have to deal with, clearly leading to an explosion in the levels of information, but not necessary a consonant increase in the knowledge that helps address the root causes of terrorism.
Accordingly, with the increase of information from diverse sources, varying widely on accuracy, open source spying ultimately becomes a pyrrhic exercise in which more and more resources will be needed to help deal with and sift through the exponential growth of information generated by the commons. Given the highly dubious levels of both human and machine intelligence at many spying agencies around the world, who operate on threat matrices and alert levels that are often wholly disconnected from the measures necessary to actually address the (re)emergence of violence, technology to use the commons to spy is really only going to result in mass hysteria, false positives, possible human rights abuses and the establishment of a culture of self-censorship.
It is imperative that we use all the tools and technology available to us to fight terrorism. The web and internet, and the exponential growth of mobile devices with multimedia affords us unprecedented potential to use ordinary citizens are vital nodes in ascertaining how best to respond to violence, strengthen peace and democracy, and safeguard fundamental rights. Projects and initiatives such as Witness, and Amnesty’s Irrepressible, offer inspiration on how technology can be used to safeguard democracy. Citizen journalism such as Groundviews help us nurture and amplify voices that may otherwise go unheard. The mobile phone offers us a way in which to communicate news and information for public good, such as the newly established SMS based news service on JNW. I have also written extensively on how new technologies can help radically transform dispute resolution and conflict transformation.
It is regrettable (inevitable?) that those who do have the money to spend on making our world a safer, better, more secure place to live in do so in ways that only guarantee the perpetuation on a fear psychosis that in turn leads to a Orwellian society, where Big Brother is actually your colleague in the next cubicle, where your neighbors have web cams trained on your backyard and your email is checked without your knowledge for any content that may be seen to be a “threat”, to someone, somewhere or something.
It’s not a society I’d like to see technology foster, especially when as enumerated above, technology allows us so much of potential to ensure a society free of fear, hunger and misery. Rather than open source spying, how about some open source peacebuilding?