Crowdsourcing National Defense

Several very interesting articles have come out lately discussing various attempts to crowdsource national defense functions, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom.  While crowdsourcing is a very interesting and powerful technique, applications like this run an enormous risk and must proceed with extreme caution.

What is crowdsourcing?  Crowdsourcing, a combination of “crowd” and “outsourcing,” is the method by which an organization tries to harness the collective knowledge of many individuals.  This is usually done through some sort of online facilitation (in order to increase the reach and size of the “crowd”), and has been referred to as a number of things, including community-based design, distributed participatory design, and human-based computation.

Essentially, the idea is that the more eyes and brains you have looking at something or working on something, the faster and better it will be done.  Lots of people like this idea, including Netflix, Wikipedia, and the Democratic National Committee.

Two recent converts to the crowdsourcing movement are DARPA and the UK’s Home Office.  Both of these new projects have the possibility to go disastrously wrong, and quickly. Here’s the rundown:


According to WIRED, DARPA’s new budget includes a

$13 million dollar project, called “Deep ISR Processing by Crowds,” looks “to harness the unique cognitive and creative abilities of large numbers of people to enhance dramatically the knowledge derived from ISR systems.”

As we have already seen, information sharing is already a  real challenge for the Department of Defense.  Intuitively, does it make sense to further distribute the information collection and analysis process?  The National Security Agency is already building a separate facility simply to store the data that they collect but cannot process.  Do DARPA and the NSA believe that an infrastructure is in place to distribute, analyze, and collect sensitive information and hope to achieve actionable results?  Doubtful.

Furthermore, the hardest part about intelligence work is providing the appropriate context to any particular piece of information.  By further distributing this data, we make the challenge of building appropriate contexts exponentially more difficult, thereby increasing the time and cost to turn data into information, and information into meaningful action.

Home Office

In a pilot program that makes DARPA’s look like child’s play, the Home Office announced a new website that will allow individuals to anonymously report online activities that “spread hate and violent extremism.”

According to officials,

The reports are anonymous and are then reviewed by police officers who are part of the new Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, run by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). A Home Office spokeswoman said that unit would be responsible for determining the intent of the content posted, which would determine whether it is in fact illegal.

In a country where you can be prosecuted for “owning information useful to terrorism,” this seems like Big Brother’s dream.  Now people will be able to report their neighborhood terrorists, or neighbors, without ever having to leave their home.  Conveniently, the form provides a button at the end of the form to immediately start a new form.  Perhaps the next version will include the ability to submit a batch of terrorists at once, thus saving everyone time.

Have someone to report?  Here’s the Home Office site.  If you need help determining who may or may not be a terrorist – the National Counterterrorism Center has an absolutely fantastic 2010 Counterterrorism Calendar (seriously), featuring terrorist groups, methods and tactics, and terrorist profiles.

No word on whether the 2010 calendar features any beach or bikini shots.


If we are going to be serious about fighting terrorism or increasing our national security, then we need to move beyond cliche and dangerous proposals like this, or the National Threat Advisory, and put serious effort into a societal-level change in how we conduct our lives, balance liberty and security, and envision our collective future.

Failing that, we’ll all soon be reporting each other with one screen and processing that same information on another.  How long until you see yourself in the information you’ve been crowdsourced?  What will you do then?


One thought on “Crowdsourcing National Defense

  1. Guess who directed me to your website? I love that woman! Wanted to make a comment on Crowdsourcing. We watched a movie last night based on a John LeCarre story called The Tailor of Panama (2001) staring Pierce Brosnen and Jeffery Rush. I’d call it an excellent example of Crowdsoursing.

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