Too Much Information: Ineffective Intelligence Collection

By Young, Alex | Harvard International Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Too Much Information: Ineffective Intelligence Collection


Young, Alex, Harvard International Review


"In the intelligence business, bigger is not necessarily better."

-Bruce Riedel, former Central Intelligence Agency analyst

In this age of digitalization and technology, intelligence agencies across the globe process massive amounts of information about individuals, sub-state actors, and governments every day. Intelligence experts and military leaders often assume that the goal of intelligence work is to gather as much information as possible in order to formulate a more comprehensive picture of the world. The United States, in particular, has become a global epicenter of intelligence work--4.2 million US citizens, more than 10% of the country's population, have some form of security clearance. However, this aggressive intelligence gathering does not make for better-informed government agencies or higher quality security policy. Instead, excessive information collection leads to information overload on both the individual and institutional levels, impairing the US intelligence community's ability to do its job. What's more, US government agencies do not use this information effectively, due to overclassification problems. These inefficiencies in intelligence ultimately sow instability in the international system and increase the likelihood of conflict between states.

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Too Much Information

The US intelligence community is currently inundated with information. This poses a serious challenge to effective intelligence work. Overwhelmed by data, analysts lose the ability to pick out what is important and fail to make good judgments. In a 1970 book, futurist Alvin Toffler of the International Institute for Strategic Studies coined the term "information overload" to describe situations in which an excess of information results in poorer decision making. Today, this phenomenon holds true on both an individual and an institutional level. Modern psychology teaches that the human brain can only focus effectively on so much information at a time. As a person tries to complete more tasks simultaneously, his or her efficacy in dealing with each individual task diminishes in a phenomenon called "cognitive overload." Psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino writes that information overload leads to added stress, indecisiveness, and less effective analysis of decisions. This feature of human attention has clear implications for security policy: attempting to collect more and more information makes a nation less secure when it overloads intelligence analysts.

Information overload carries over to the institutional level in three ways. First, institutional skill is in some ways nothing more than an aggregation of individual talent. If every member of a group is overhwelmed by an excess of information, then the organization as a whole is unable to operate effectively. Secondly, institutions may face the challenge of circular reporting. In the process of collecting massive amounts of information, agencies may collect the same information twice from different sources. When faced with high volumes of incoming reports, intelligence agencies cannot easily prevent this duplication of data. It is particularly difficult to detect circular reporting when the shared provenance of the information is obscured--for example, when the information is delivered to intelligence officers through secondary sources. Not only does circular reporting add to inefficiency, it also can lead analysts to place too much importance on the twice-reported information. This is because analysts measure the credibility of intelligence reporting in part based on how many independent sources confirm the report. That standard becomes problematic, though, if one source appears to multiply through circular reporting. Third, organizations fall prey to the sheer complexity of their own intelligence gathering frameworks. These three factors make information overload a serious problem at the institutional level.

To make things worse, institutions are notoriously ineffective at evaluating themselves.

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