Information Overload: Managing Intelligence Technologies. (Intelligence)

By MacDonald, Margaret S.; Oettinger, Anthony G. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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Information Overload: Managing Intelligence Technologies. (Intelligence)


MacDonald, Margaret S., Oettinger, Anthony G., Harvard International Review


Advances in scientific knowledge, translated into new technology, have made previously unmanageable intelligence tasks feasible and greatly increased the speed at which intelligence professionals perform traditional activities. Improved sensors, transmission capabilities, and analytical tools deliver unprecedented volumes of information and processing capabilities to the intelligence community and its customers, military and political decision makers. Processes that used to take days or weeks now take only seconds. Activities carried out at dispersed locations throughout the world can be managed centrally, ensuring coherence in the information delivered and a rapid flow of intelligence between the field and administrative office.

And yet, problems that have always plagued intelligence seem impervious to the information revolution. A 1990 report titled Whence and Whither Intelligence, Command and control? The Certainty of Uncertainty explains: "The continuing availability of ever smaller, faster, cheaper, better tools for information processing gives us the illusion that throwing these tools at perennial problems of intelligence, command and control can solve these problems once and for all. In reality, the new tools continuously trigger readjustments in numerous interlinked balancing acts ... The endless frontier of complexity accounts for our simultaneous sensations of both progress and deja vu." For 22 years, the Seminar on Intelligence, Command, and Control has brought military and civilian leaders to Harvard University. Their opinions and anecdotes illuminate the persistent balances that the intelligence community and its customers must keep adjusting. While technology may tip some of these balances in one direction or another, it has not eliminated the conflicting forces that must be balanced--and never will.

Supply and Demand

The intelligence professionals of 20 or even 10 years ago might well have considered the technology available to the intelligence community today a dream come true. The information revolution has provided the intelligence community and its customers with superb tools, including supercomputers and software for intelligent information processing, high-resolution satellite imagery; and sensors that penetrate natural and manmade barriers to identify targets or link directly to precision- guided weapons. In-Q-Tel, the for-profit corporation spun off from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to encourage commercial development of intelligence-related technology, has been designed to connect the intelligence community to some of the most innovative thinking in the private sector.

The result in many areas is that the intelligence community and its customers no longer suffer from information scarcity but from information overload. Analysis must cover enormous quantities of data, in which valuable information may at best be implicit. Even so, many decision makers who remember the information scarcity of the Cold War era still demand more from the intelligence community, thereby perpetuating approaches more appropriate to penetrating the Soviet Union than to dealing with terrorists.

Efficient search engines and vast databases certainly allow the intelligence community to use that mass of information to supply objective intelligence almost instantaneously (e.g. "Which airfields in Country X can accommodate C-130 transport planes?" or "What are the physical characteristics of the enemy's new anti-aircraft radar?"). Geospatial information systems can combine classified satellite imagery, digital terrain elevation data, hydrographic information, aeronautical information, and foundation feature data to create maps that give deployed troops displays not only of the natural environment but also of manmade features and recent activity in an area. In many tactical situations, such intelligence products suffice to meet the operational user's needs.

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