The Good Guys Want Your Data, Too

(Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.)

Happy Thursday, everyone. Tomorrow, we celebrate the birth of the Internet! Below, I briefly touch on two current events and then provide a longer follow-up to last week’s newsletter. 

What Is Elon Musk Up to With Twitter? 

On Monday, Elon Musk revealed he has bought 9.2 percent of Twitter, making him the platform’s largest outside shareholder. The eccentric billionaire is also joining Twitter’s board and its stock has already spiked 27 percent.

Musk has more than 80 million followers on Twitter, and he regularly complains about the platform’s business model and content moderation policies. It’s not clear if Musk has a larger plan to buyout the company in the future, but this type of move would certainly set up an acquisition. Or, he could simply be trolling them (and making bank while doing so). 

Hackers Are Pretending to Be the Cops 

Cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs reports hackers are compromising the websites and emails of government agencies and police departments, and then sending data requests to social media firms, phone companies, and internet service providers—saying a warrant cannot be supplied because the request is related to an urgent matter of life or death. Even worse, it appears Apple, Meta, and other major companies are among those who got fooled.  

The data given to the hackers include users’ addresses, phone numbers, and IP addresses.  

The fake data requests may have been happening since January 2021 and, at this point, appear to be connected to a group of minors in the U.S. and U.K.  

My two cents: This stinks because I’m sure every person at each of these companies was simply trying to do the right thing in answering what looked like a legit emergency request. Now, when a real emergency pops up, these requests are going to get a more skeptical review that could actually cost someone their life.  

The Good Guys Want Your Data, Too 

Last week, I wrote a long newsletter explaining why China wants the personal data of everyday Americans and how it goes about getting it. But I will have failed you if you think that it’s only the Chinese government wanting a taste of our sweet, sweet information. The United States’ intelligence community is also interested in what I’ll now call private market data (PMD)—data that is generated by consumers, companies, and other entities and that is collected, collated, analyzed, and sold by technology companies and data brokerage services. But, unlike the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), I think the IC has a compelling case for at least some access to this information. Let me explain. 

Knowledge has always been a means to power. The more one knows, the better one can understand a situation, a challenge, an opportunity, or a risk. The gathering of knowledge, then, has always been a defining feature of American national security. After all, it’s very difficult to defend against threats or to seize opportunities if you do not know about them. Hence, the IC. 

The U.S. intelligence community budget was $84 billion last year, spread across 18 departments and agencies. This enterprise is arrayed against a diverse set of issues, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, including Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Western isolationism, biological/chemical/nuclear WMD, outer space, cyberspace, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, automation, nanotechnology, biotechnology, global inequality, violent extremism, migration, urbanization, climate change, pandemics, and transnational crime. In fact, it’s not hyperbole to say the United States has the largest and most diverse set of national interests—and, therefore, corresponding intelligence requirements—of any nation in the history of the world. These unprecedented interests create an unending demand for information. Explaining this reality back in 2014, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) then chief analytic methodologist, Josh Kerbel, observed the following: 

Today, however, the [intelligence community] no longer has the luxury of watching a single discrete entity that demands classified collection in order to obtain relevant data. There is a much more expansive range of interconnected and complex challenges. These challenges—economic contagion, viral political and social instability, resource competition, migration, climate change, transnational organized crime, pandemics, proliferation, cyber security, terrorism, etc.—are interdependent phenomena, not discrete “things.” . . . Intelligence analysts must be capable of thinking creatively—holistically and synthetically across traditional boundaries. The long-held emphasis on reductive thinking that breaks issues into discrete pieces—reinforced by the compartmentalization associated with classified information—is no longer sufficient. 

Kerbel’s point is that modern intelligence must account for the growing interconnectedness of the world and of its attendant challenges. This, he argues, requires the intermingling of unclassified and classified data “holistically and synthetically” to enable complex understanding of complex problems. Intelligence must use all sources if it’s going to have maximum utility. 

But what is intelligence? It’s necessarily more than data. It’s data leveraged and applied. For national security purposes, it’s not enough to know a fact, that fact must have context so that it can be properly understood. Its relevance to mission requirements and the opportunities and risks created by its acquisition and use must also be assessed. Finally, information must be actionable, that is, it must enable action that improves—or at least is thought to improve—national security. In this sense, intelligence is not a single piece of information but is instead the product of data being pooled together in a manner that supplies insights and then enables action. 

When it comes to gathering this intelligence, foreign intelligence agencies like the CIA or the National Security Agency enjoy very broad collection authorities when it comes to non-U.S. citizens. Domestic intelligence agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI have more constraints—especially when it comes to U.S. citizens—but are still able to conduct extensive surveillance and analysis, when necessary, within existing legal frameworks. The desire, then, for PMD is not primarily driven by tactical demands (though it would be helpful here, too) but, instead, by the growing need for deep awareness at scale. 

Twenty years after 9/11, the American government is well-practiced and well-enabled to do the type of “man-hunting” intelligence work that is featured so prominently in popular entertainment. But the return of so-called great power competition with other nations is reminding policymakers that true national security is not contained only within the need to “find, fix, and finish” an individual target—it also includes being able to understand, predict, and influence whole governments and populations, and private market actors are uniquely capable of collecting and using the data underlying such capabilities. Specifically, PMD offers an appealing opportunity for the IC to develop at-scale intelligence because it’s unclassified, “rich,” and recent.

First, private market data is unclassified—meaning it can be easily used and shared. This information is typically freely (if not always knowingly) provided by users in exchange for services, and most terms of service agreements allow the collecting entities to use or to sell this information in whatever way they choose. This agility and shareability is very attractive to an American government that is routinely beset by information silos and bureaucratic barriers to essential collaboration. The unclassified nature of this information also allows this data to be intermingled with other data, further enabling data “fusion” and analytic sharing.

Second, private market data is “rich.” This is true in both volume and detail. PMD is frequently collected on a massive scale—just one data broker has 700 billion aggregated “data elements”—and this is important for identifying trends and gleaning insights at a societal level. This “richness” is the result of highly detailed PMD being combined with modern and emerging processing capabilities, and yields previously unimagined awareness at the macro, mezzo, and micro levels of the world.

Third, private market data is recent. You may remember from last week that more than 90 percent of the world’s data has been generated in the last 24 months. Well, this constantly refreshing torrent of information can provide insights into a person’s, or a nation’s, economic, social, and political life. For an intelligence enterprise tasked with a real-time understanding of geopolitical realities strategically, operationally, and tactically, private market data constitutes an unparalleled pool of insights that is tantalizingly within reach.

The intelligence community’s growing “need to know” and the emerging ubiquity of data together capture the proper context for understanding the government’s attraction to private market data. This is why, for example, the DIA, DHS, FBI, DEA, and IRS have all publicly disclosed their purchases of American PMD. Understandably, this causes some queasiness. But here are just two illustrations of how the government might specifically use this data to advance the nation’s security.

Imagine the FBI learns that a known foreign weapons proliferator is trying to supply a domestic terrorist group with radiological materials so that they can attack the U.S. Senate with a “dirty bomb.” It also discovers that this proliferator is trying to use a known human-smuggling network to infiltrate the United States and to deliver this radiological material to his buyer. Now assume the bureau has access to a facial recognition tool that scrapes social media and other open-source data sets and can identify the ringleader of the human-smuggling network by comparing a partial mirror reflection in a child exploitation video with a Facebook picture from another user that just so happens to capture the criminal in the background, proving his presence at the time and location of the explicit video. This allows the ringleader to be identified, found, and arrested. Follow-on analysis not only allows law enforcement to disrupt the human-smuggling ring but also to lure the weapons proliferator and the domestic terrorists into a sting that prevents the U.S. Senate attack, liberates scores of women and children, and results in multiple arrests and convictions.

Or, consider a larger geopolitical challenge. Imagine the U.S. intelligence community has access to decades of agriculture, climate, and economic trade data that has been collected by dozens of private market sources, including “smart” farm equipment, digitized trading markets, and industry association reporting. Now imagine this data has been pooled and fused by the IC, allowing agencies to alert the president to a high risk of famine within a partner nation that, if allowed to take hold, would likely result in large-scale death, massive refugee migration into neighboring countries, and the significant weakening—possibly even the downfall—of a friendly government in a strategically important region. But because this warning was possible, international aid and support were mobilized, the crisis was averted, and the improved alliance enabled the United States even greater influence in the region.

Frankly, these two examples are narrow and are relatively simple applications of PMD. Far more sophisticated examples will be possible as more data are made available and as artificial intelligence and other capabilities develop. But both of these examples are rooted in real intelligence challenges and show the potential impact of government access to private data. Now imagine if the government had failed to detect and disrupt either of these challenges—both could have catastrophic consequences.

In closing, let me acknowledge that this brief commentary only scratches the surface and raises a number of unaddressed questions about government surveillance, individual privacy, and many other serious matters. Please read this essay if you’d like my longer meditations on these issues. My point today, though, is simply to underscore just how powerful our data can be and to draw your attention to the fact that it’s not just the bad guys who want it.

 That’s it for this edition of The Current. Be sure to comment on this post and to share this newsletter with your family, friends, and followers. You can also follow me on Twitter (@KlonKitchen). Thanks for taking the time and I’ll see you next week! 

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