Wiki-counter-terrorism & Social Surveillance

January 25, 2010 / Culture, Life, Media, Tech /
Social Drone

An MQ-1 Predator drone returned from a mission to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan with a new paintjob, courtesy of StevenDuque.com.

In his book Wikinomics, business strategist Don Tapscott writes:

“Employees drive performance by collaborating with peers across organizational boundaries, creating what we call a ‘wiki workplace.’ Customers become ‘prosumers’ by cocreating goods and services rather than simply consuming the end-product. So called-supply chains work more effectively when the risk, reward, and capability to compete major projects—including massively complex products like cars, motorcycles, and airplanes—are distributed across planetary networks of partners who work as peers (1).”

According to a recent article in The New York Times, unmanned surveillance drones are currently collecting more video intelligence than analysts are able to handle. The volume of footage taken from last year’s surveillance efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly triple what it was only a few years ago–a grand total of roughly 24 years’ worth of footage, if watched without break. As operations in Afghanistan will certainly escalate in the near future and U.S. troops are withdrawn from both countries over time, the problem of excess, unmanned surveillance will only compound.

What if, as customers of national security, citizens aided the government’s counterterrorism surveillance efforts through mass collaborative online efforts? The government could post snippets of video on a centralized media hub, and citizens could review videos, comment on them, and flag them (if they see something suspicious). The government might even provide incentives for quality interactions — say, a fiscal or honorary rewards for good citizenship. Perhaps other citizens could rate others’ interactions, providing an element of peer evaluation and competition. Government intelligence officers could use the number of unique flags and/or comments to make triage decisions, and users could help screen the verity of flags by giving them a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’

Citizens would become ‘prosumers’ of national security, adding value to the end product of counterterrorist intelligence because of their vested interest in U.S. national security.

There are undeniably both interesting and disconcerting aspects of this proposition. I’ll address what I see to be the most immediate issues at stake.

The Big Brother Effect & and Society of Distrust. If implemented, social surveillance should be limited to foreign threats, most would agree. Mass collaborative surveillance of faraway lands would foster national antagonism (in addition to a sense of social responsbility) toward threats external to a nation’s society. If focused inward, however, our trust in one another might suffer from fear of Red Scare-like accusations, akin to how many around the world distrust police. Separately, dislike for Americans in the international community may be exacerbated by citizens’ participation in military surveillance efforts.

Securispam and Poor Intelligence. For those of you familiar with the comment boards of YouTube, you’ll find that some of the comments are sometimes, well, pretty crummy and downright idiotic at times, even on serious videos. Inviting open commentary on quasi-sensitive information could result in a deluge of crappy ‘intelligence,’ not to mention create PR-nightmares that may result from less-than-politically correct commentary that media outlets — both domestic and overseas — catch wind of. Additionally, opening up participation to the online world could create security windows for foreign intelligence operatives to spam video surveillance posting boards with faulty intelligence. Imagine how many times you’ve watched a crummy video or read a stupid article because of how many diggs it received.

Needless to say, there are plenty of holes in my half-baked plan for wikicounterterrorism. But, the problem remains: as our government is increasingly inundated with an endless streams of surveillanc edata, a better system of reviewing what could be important information is needed. While creating an open wiki-hub for commenting and flagging video may not be the right answer, I tend to think there is something right in the proposition to incorporate mass collaborative techniques, at least structurally, into the processes for reviewing large amounts of sensitive data. Whether that means opening up the surveillance data to the American general public or limiting who can access the information — e.g., to government officials and/or outsourced private military companies — the excuse that there’s simply too much surveillance out there will not suffice, if national security threats pass under the radar.

To end this post, I’ll leave you with a  comment from then-Senator Barack Obama on citizen participation in national security efforts:

“”To succeed [in the War on Terrorism], we must improve our civilian capacity. The finest military in the world is adapting to the challenges of the 21st century. But it cannot counter insurgent and terrorist threats without civilian counterparts who can carry out economic and political reconstruction missions – sometimes in dangerous places. As President, I will strengthen these civilian capacities, recruiting our best and brightest to take on this challenge. I will increase both the numbers and capabilities of our diplomats, development experts, and other civilians who can work alongside our military. We can’t just say there is no military solution to these problems. We need to integrate all aspects of American might.”

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