Can Web 2.0 make spies smarter?

My friend Clive Thompson has a great piece in the latest New York Times magazine that looks at whether Web 2.0-type tools such as blogs, wikis and other “social media” can help the U.S. intelligence community get better at their jobs. As the article notes early on, most of the research that has been done on the attacks of September 11, 2001 has shown that many of the pieces were there to indicate that something serious was in the works, but no one put them all together.

The story begins with an anecdote about a young geek who shows up at his new job with the Defense Intelligence Agency expecting to find all kinds of great technology for tracking the bad guys, and instead finds an ancient computer network with either poor or non-existent connections between different intelligence agencies and instant messaging systems that were incompatible. What better way to get people sharing information than with wikis and blogs?

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I can almost hear Web 2.0 skeptics like Nick “The Prophet of Doom” Carr and Andrew “Web 2.0 is Communism 2.0” Keen snorting with derision at this idea. Blogs and wikis for spies? What will they think of next. But Clive’s story deals with the downside of social media as well — including the issue of getting people to actually use the tools when they are available. Spies are notoriously secretive, even when dealing with other spooks. How do you get them to share?

When it gets right down to it, however, Clive’s story makes the point that intelligence is about information, and if you don’t have fast access to the right information then you are lost, as the 9/11 report made clear. And what is the Web but a tool for aggregating and finding information? Better still, because intelligence agencies are using Web 2.0-type tools on secure networks with restricted access, the signal-to-noise ratio should (theoretically) be higher.

Although they are fighting the inherent bureaucracy within the U.S. intelligence community — which is arguably larger and more entrenched than virtually any corporate bureaucracy — it’s nice to know that there are those who are fighting to use Web-style tools to help break down some of those walls. Andrew McAfee, the Harvard Business School professor who is a champion of “Enterprise 2.0,” seems to feel the same.

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