You’ve no doubt heard of or even confronted stubborn resistance by data “owners.” Some of them can say “no” faster than Italian bureaucrats. You want what? Some of my data? This seems so pervasive that would-be data users might stand a better chance at winning the California lottery.
But as soon as you think the game’s over, there’s a surprise. This month I heard a formerly high ranking American intelligence official talk about, of all things, open data. She seemed to say that we should let our very clever people benefit us all by finding what they can in it. She also seemed to like publicly produced data, which is much cheaper than the homemade stuff.
I heard all that on a podcast, Intelligence Matters, hosted by former deputy director of the CIA Mike Morell. The guest was Sue Gordon, until recently the second in command at Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They pondered a big question: Why did the intelligence community take so long to see what the Russians were up to in the 2016 election?
She seemed to imply that stale thinking got in the way. She wondered how the community could stay fresh. How does the intelligence community avoid putting too much faith in past assessments? How do we see what may contradict those old judgements?
To further complicate things, she said, a big part of today’s “threat surface” — which seems to mean the place that needs defending — is controlled by the private sector. Today’s warfare is about social media corrupted and founding stories weakened. Much of that “threat surface” is to be defended by corporations or the public if by anyone at all.
SUE GORDON [lightly edited] And what that means is, intelligence has to be made available for those [private] decision-makers, whether it’s the populace — ‘You all are being duped’ — or the private sector — “You all are having your secrets stolen. You need to make different decisions. And we need to give you information so that you can make different decisions.” And that is a big leap for us, culturally. But if we remember we’re in the national security business, I think we’ll find our way to be able to provide good stuff there.
… We’re learning. As you know, this is culturally difficult for us. But we are producing much more information openly. So, I’m proud of the intelligence community assessment on the 2016 election that was published unclassified. That was a huge leap.
But what it did was, it [made us share] information. And we are doing great things with the private sector to talk about counterintelligence threats. And it’s with no ask. It’s just sharing it. And it’s sharing it openly and being involved in the conversations. So I think our conversation with the American people is really helping the trust.
Morell also talked about this with another high ranking intelligence official, Ellen McCarthy, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.
ELLEN MCCARTHY: I’ve seen the value of open-source data and the assumptions that it can make that rival what we do, for a lot more money, and not quite at the same pace. And I really think, in some ways, we need to take a look. … I think in some ways we’re upside down. We should, instead of starting with our architecture at the highest classification level and working down, it should be the other way up. We should be designing a third rail and really incorporating open-source intelligence and capabilities much more quickly than we are right now.
It’s culturally difficult, says Sue Gordon. Yet she and McCarthy give hints that the beast is groaning and stretching. And with it might be the lesser beasts, the smaller silos. Perhaps we’ll even see a new generation of data guardians more willing to open their silos. Or else no silos at all.