BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Ever since 9/11 exposed fatal flaws in the U.S. intelligence apparatus, the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have struggled to update their infrastructure. In a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, Clive Thompson tells the story of Matthew Burton, hired in 2003 by the Defense Intelligence Agency, who was thrilled to finally get his hands on the high-tech spook-ware that he thought would come with the job.
At the very least, the 22-year-old assumed he'd have the same relatively efficient communication afforded to any civilian who uses the internet, like e-mail and instant messaging.
But, no, instead of finding that anything civilians could do spies could do better, Burton confronted hopelessly antiquated technology. Agencies could barely talk among themselves let along to each other. These tools are improving, says Clive Thompson, but the outside world has gotten a serious head start.
CLIVE THOMPSON: I talked to CIA analysts and operatives who would try and send something to the FBI, like just a basic file. And they would call, and go, well, you know, it didn't get here. Can you, you know, can you fax it? And they'd go, well, okay, and they'd fax it.
And the FBI guys would go, well, the system says it arrives, but we can't find it, so can you courier it over? I mean, and this is happening three or four years ago.
BOB GARFIELD: So, not to put too fine a point on it, the scenes we see in movies where the star types in a name into his or her computer and all of a sudden gets cross-referenced files from everybody in the intelligence world and can pinpoint everything he or she needs to know, that's all fiction?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah. I don't know. That's very much fiction. I mean, it's kind of funny. You know, I'm a big fan of 24, and they're always doing this] hilarious stuff. Like, you know, give me everything on this person, and you punch a name into a search engine, and, you know, they get maps of the person's house and all sort of information about their domestic life and international records.
In the real world of intelligence, a lot of that stuff would be warehoused in different databases, and you'd have to go out there and really stitch it together.
BOB GARFIELD: So now we have a directorate of national intelligence to which all of the various intelligence agencies are now responsible. What are they doing about it?
CLIVE THOMPSON: They're starting to borrow some of the ideas that you see out on the open Internet. One of them is this thing called Intellopedia, which is essentially a Wikipedia for spies. Anyone who visits it can edit or change or write a page.
BOB GARFIELD: So there's a question for you. I guess you have essentially two choices – number one, to use the very limited number of people with extremely high security clearances and therefore access to lots and lots of classified information, or to widen the net to include those who aren't necessarily the possessor of a lot of secrets but just might be able to add to the conversation.
Does the intelligence community have any idea yet which yields better results?
CLIVE THOMPSON: No, I don't think they do, because Intellopedia is a fairly new experiment. It only went online earlier this year. It's already got thousands and thousands of articles. But you raised a really good point, which is that there's at least three major levels of classification.
At the top secret level's a small number, secret, there's a slightly larger number, unclassified 's a very large number. Then there's actually three versions of Intellopedia, you know, for each of those levels.
Now, the guys at the top, they've got all sort of great secret information. But on the other hand, the guys at the bottom have numbers in their favor. They've got huge numbers of people contributing.
The one thing that I heard over and over again is that it used to be that the job of spy agencies were to go and get those few little precious secrets that would tell you the most important things you needed to know about the Soviet Union. And now they're realizing there's so much information publicly out there on the Internet that it's becoming more important to be able to sift through that than it is to sort of go in and, in a clandestine way, ferret out a secret.
BOB GARFIELD: At some point, though, don't the intelligence services find themselves just so inundated with information that they can't find the needle in the haystack?
CLIVE THOMPSON: If you take a look at the way the Internet works right now, it's very good at finding the needles in the haystack, or finding the valuable nuggets. And so the question is, can things like Intellopedia do the same thing for the enormous sea of information that the spies deal with every day?
The reason why Google is so good is because Google relies on ordering our results based on what sites are the most popular. Google says if this site that says the words "Clive Thompson" has 100 links pointing to it, it's more reliable than one that has only 5 links pointing to it.
The problem that the spies have is that they have their own personal internet, and there's no linking on it. There's no people out there blogging. There's no one out there doing that sort of social glue that says, hey, here's a link to this great study. It's amazing. And 10 people link to it.
So when their search engine goes out there, yeah, it can find all the files that say "Clive Thompson" but it can't organize them, because it doesn't have any social information.
BOB GARFIELD: There are laws as to how much sharing intelligence agencies can actually do. The CIA, for example, is not allowed to spy on American citizens in America. If the CIA starts sharing its data with, let's say, the FBI, isn't that a violation of U.S. law?
CLIVE THOMPSON: It certainly could be, yeah, absolutely. And this is the big question as to how promiscuous can you be with this data? In practice, it seems as though they're, by and large, very careful about this. You know, some of it is self-preservation. Agents can be charged, you know, if they violate any laws.
There are some possible technical solutions to this. The Markle Foundation has done a series of excellent reports. One of their participants in their studies has proposed a very clever way of just essentially encrypting all the information that's deeply secret. So it all goes out on the Internet, but no human can read it. Search engines can.
And so, essentially, you know, you might have someone that the CIA goes, well, I'm interested in who might know about al Qaeda in Arizona, and so they take that stuff in. And what they get back is not a file, but, essentially, just a pointer to a person in Arizona, and saying, you know, go talk to this person. We can't tell you what they know, but they might be useful to you.
BOB GARFIELD: That would have been very useful around September 10th, 2001.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Absolutely.
BOB GARFIELD: The State Department was trying to get some information about Iranians involved in their secret nuclear program, and the CIA, for reasons of protecting sources and methods, said, oh, we're not going to give you that information. So the State Department goes onto Google with a junior employee, searching around, and comes up with 12 names, and these people now have travel bans against them. Is that what we have to look forward to?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, it's entirely possible that if the spy agencies become a lot more interested in what they call "open-source information," which means, for them, public information on the internet, that, yeah. So I talked to a young analyst who had done a report for his manager, and it had been done entirely with information that he'd found on the internet. And he'd spent months working on this, and he'd pulled together really a fantastic threat report.
And he handed it to his boss, and his boss read it and said, this is great, I'm going to pass this up the food chain. But before I do, I need you to sprinkle in a few pieces of human intelligence, just to make it look as though we used covert agents to help create this report.
So what his boss was telling him was that you have produced an amazing piece of intelligence just using stuff on the Internet, but for reasons of politics, we need to make it look as though we needed to have the spies out there, basically.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. Go create the illusion that what we do is still relevant.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, I mean, like the fact of the matter is, obviously it still requires someone with an analyst's skills to be able to pull together a good threat report. You and I probably couldn't do that because we wouldn't know what to look for. We wouldn't understand the context. But maybe the nature of what intelligence is, is changing. ] BOB GARFIELD: All right. Clive, as always, thank you so much.
CLIVE THOMPSON: No problem. I enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.