Meanwhile, back on the spook front, a couple or three developments. Maybe not all of a piece. They just bunched up on the radar around the same time.
To begin with, NSA has announced the establishment of a new Directorate of Operations, to oversee two previously separate missions - known as Signals Intelligence and Information Assurance - the first their offensive eavesdropping capacity, and the second their security firewalls. This is kind of a big deal, although it might not seem like it to an outside. The intelligence agencies prefer not to cross-pollinate.
Although inter-agency and intra-agency transparency looks good on paper, there are inherent risks, and they don't necessarily have a lot to do with jurisdiction or budget fights. Yes, you always have to live with dedicated turf warriors, but this is actually about keeping your assets secure and compartmentalized. For many years, CIA has maintained an institutional divide between Intelligence and Operations, and resisted calls to integrate. You could argue one mission is passive and the other active, but more to the point, a compromise on one side of the shop doesn't jeopardize the other. You limit your exposure. You're not giving up a roadmap to sources and methods.
So it's a trade-off. NSA may well enhance its analytical skills, of intercepted traffic and in defense against cyber attack. They may also be opening the watertight doors.
The next thing that caught my attention probably falls under the heading of Old Wine, New Bottles. Some while ago, DARPA came up with a program, or a menu of programs, called Total Information Awareness. This was shelved, for a time, and then implemented by fits and starts, not as a fully coherent approach. Then come the Snowden leaks, and data-mining is on everybody's lips. Nancy Pelosi and the House Intelligence Committee are shocked, shocked, but eventually the smoke blows away. Now a new tool has surfaced, called Information Volume and Velocity. (Don't you love these names?) This is designed to model trends on social media, among other platforms.
The most obvious application is counterterrorism. ISIS, for one, and the insurgents in the North Caucasus, for another, are more than familiar with Twitter and Facebook. They use them for recruitment, and public relations, and for command-and-control in the field - although lately the more popular vehicle has been on-line simulator games. You can see the appeal of a first-person shooter.
The problem, from NSA's point of view (or CIA, or the FBI, or Homeland Security), isn't data collection. The issue is how to process the material, and spin gold out of straw. The volume, not to mention the velocity, is impossible to keep up with. What they've got is an embarrassment of riches. The information environment is overwhelming. They need a filtering mechanism, to define the threat posture.
Last but not least, we have the recent Apple dust-up. This isn't a theoretical, or preventative policing. It's a question that came up after the San Bernadino shootings last December. Farook, one of the shooters, had an iPhone. FBI investigators would like to unlock it, and Apple says they won't provide a way to defeat the encryption. What we got here is real quicksand.
These issues are nowhere near clear-cut, although Apple CEO Tim Cook seems determined to frame it in apocalyptic terms and FBI Director James Comey is taking a predictably hard line. The law-and-order argument is uncomplicated. Comey says, we need to pursue every lead, in case other people are involved. We have a duly-issued search warrant for the digital contents of the phone, and the manufacturer has a legal and moral obligation to comply. Apple has in fact given the FBI everything it could download from the Cloud, but it refuses to write code that would reverse-engineer the encrypted data that's on the phone itself. Apple maintains that this would of necessity amount to a master key, that would unlock any iPhone. In other words, they could no longer market a secure product. They may cloak it in civil liberties, but it's a business decision.
The disingenuousness, or hypocrisy, on both sides, doesn't take away from either position. Comey's point is perfectly well taken, and so is Cook's. And for once, although I'm sure there are people who probably think I never met a surveillance program I didn't like, I'm with Apple on this one. Whether you trust U.S. federal agencies to take the high road is irrelevant. There are other countries in the world. There are more than a few that bully their own citizens, and whose management of information technology is anything but benign. We'd be handing them a loaded gun.
Is there a common thread? I dunno. There's no hard and fast. Maybe it signifies, maybe not. Stuff drifts past in my peripheral vision, and sometimes it catches the light.