TCS Daily

Surveillance Supremacy

By Arnold Kling - October 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the final article in a series. To read Part 1 click here. To read Part 2 click here.

"It was during these operations that Al Qaeda developed experience in its primary skill: evading the CIA and allied intelligence agencies. Blowing up embassies or attacking a U.S. warship with an explosives-laden skiff was easy...The hard part -- at which Al Qaeda learned to excel -- was to organize these intercontinental operations without being detected."
-- George Friedman, America's Secret War, p. 38

In "The Singularity is Near," Ray Kurzweil argues that the information component of goods and services is rising relative to the value of the physical resources employed in production. All of our products are becoming information-intensive. Computer software and pharmaceuticals are bellwethers of this trend. If we ever achieve true nanotechnology (including molecular assemblers), then the information share of value will approach 100 percent, while the physical resource share will approach zero.

It seems to me that the nature of war is bound to be affected by this reduction in the relative importance of material resources and the increase in relative importance of information. Translated into military terms, the information age is one in which the physical quality of weapons -- speed, firepower, and armor -- is relatively less important. Instead, what matters most now for those of us who are not terrorists is the ability to detect and monitor those who are. What matters most for terrorists is the ability to evade detection, "at which Al Qaeda learned to excel," in George Friedman's words. His book is probably the most insightful one that can be found on the war against Islamic extremists.

Command of the Spies

In the twenty years between the two World Wars, there was a paradigm shift involving air power. Air combat, which was a sideshow during the first World War, was decisive during the second. The most important naval engagements -- Pearl Harbor, Midway, Coral Sea -- were decided by aircraft. The Battle of Britain was famously a duel in the air. During the Second World War, no country could attempt a major ground attack in the face of an enemy's air superiority. (The Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge under cover of un-flyable weather, which according to legend caused General George Patton to ask for divine relief.)

From 1940 on, the air was viewed as a decisive theater of war. Military men spoke of "air superiority," "air supremacy," or "command of the skies."

The cheapening of material goods is leading to another paradigm shift in military affairs. It is becoming less and less costly to assemble and deliver weapons that can cause mass casualties and major economic loss. It is becoming commensurately more valuable to be able to figure out who the bad guys are and keep track of what they are up to. What we need in the information age is surveillance supremacy -- command of the spies, if you will.

In order to be dangerous, terrorists must be hidden. An exposed terrorist is a neutralized terrorist -- or a dead one.

America's Secret War describes some of the tactics that Al Qaeda uses to remain hidden. For example, feints, distractions, and head fakes in the form of threats that are "planted" in order to provoke a response from security personnel (subways in New York, anyone?). Another tactic is a compartmentalized structure that resists being "rolled up" even if one cell is exposed.

If terrorist groups continue to be successful at concealment, then there is no defense that can prevent a major attack. Only surveillance supremacy can ensure security.

I do not believe that surveillance supremacy will be achieved by technology alone. Strategy will be crucial, particularly given that terrorist groups will tend to adapt in response to particular surveillance tactics.

I believe that one component of surveillance strategy has to be the ability to prioritize surveillance targets. For example, I think that a necessary surveillance tool will be databases and social network analysis. In order to remain hidden, most terrorists will have to confine themselves to very narrow sets of contacts. My guess is that the social network maps of terrorists will have some distinctive characteristics that reflect their need for isolation and concealment.

Living with Surveillance

The surveillance issue was well anticipated in "The Transparent Society," a book that I have recommended before and will likely recommend again. Author David Brin suggests that we have to come to terms with the new technological paradigm, which includes on the one hand inexpensive weapons suitable to terrorists and on the other hand advanced apparatus for surveillance, such as miniature cameras and computer databases.

Many people instinctively resist the idea of trying to enhance surveillance capabilities. However, this is a difficult position to sustain. It would be like someone in 1940 advocating that his country refuse to build an air force because he believes that bombing is wrong. Bombing may indeed be wrong, but as long as there are bad guys in the world, the people who refuse to develop an air force are unlikely to survive.

Brin believes, and I concur (see also here), that powerful surveillance is inevitable. The question then becomes how to make surveillance work in a way that checks the power of those who have surveillance apparatus at their disposal.

Ray Kurzweil's contribution, assuming that he is correct in his forecast of continued acceleration of technological change, is to draw our attention to issues that matter and reduce the distraction of issues that do not matter. Watching political debate from this perspective, I see a remarkable ability of our leaders and the media to focus on the past, such as a Supreme Court decision about abortion that took place a generation ago. About the future, on the other hand, the discussion is quite limited.

We have moved from the age where military capability depended on air supremacy to an age where the key capability is surveillance supremacy. Only a few -- the Kurzweilians -- seem to have noticed.

Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics.


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