There are nearly five million Americans with some form of security clearance. Approximately 1.4 million Americans are cleared for top secret. This week, just one single person, Edward Snowden, broke ranks to expose programs at the NSA to which he was privy. A public relations pandemonium has ensued, causing the US Intelligence Community, the Congress, multiple news outlets, and much of the Internet to run around like chickens with their heads cut off.
One guy out of millions goes public with a couple of PowerPoints and the system flies into a chaotic spasm. That’s 0.0000007% of the population with top secret access able to send the planet into a heated discussion about whether the United States is betraying its Constitution. Even if you assume that only a fraction of the top secret population has knowledge of programs as controversial as the ones Snowden is detailing – let’s say 2.5% of that number, or 35,000 people – we’re still talking about 0.00003% of the work force going public.
The US Intelligence Community, in its effort to create technological systems that protect American interests, have create a system that is complex, sophisticated and terribly fragile. Add to this social and technological trends just over the horizon, and the threats to America’s complex web of secrets will increase in frequency and fragility.
Huge, tightly controlled systems are fragile
Luckily, one of the most iconoclastic and influential thinkers of the current era is dealing with exactly this phenomenon. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the author of Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan, and most recently, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Taleb’s last three major works explore a world of systems too complex to manage through our existing technocracies and assumptions. The way Taleb sees it, the more complex a system becomes, the more controls we put in place. And most critically, the more technocratic control we exert, the more we fool ourselves into believing that everything is smooth, rational and predictable. The only option, according to Taleb is to create antifragile systems that do not merely resist shocks, but actually improve from chaos.
(Note: I am skating on thin ice because Taleb routinely rips writers like myself for failing to accurately represent his work. Read his latest yourself and get it from the horse’s mouth.)
Here’s why Taleb’s theories apply to the current chaos unleashed by dissenters such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. The structure of the global surveillance regime seems to resemble the worldwide structure of finance that led to sudden, widespread economic havoc in 2008, a subject that is the basis for much of Taleb’s work (and a considerable amount of his personal fortune.)
- The system is truly global, involving more nations than any one person can understand with reliable expertise. Our partners and adversaries are literally all over the map.
- Thousands of different technologies are brought to bear, and no one person can fathom the entire system from a technical perspective.
- Millions of people are required to behave within very tight margins of error for indefinite periods of time. Given the current design, not a single person can have a sudden crisis of conscience, a psychic break, or even an off day of leaving their laptop in some coffee shop. With a population so large, just the incidence of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression with psychotic features might give one pause.
Let us compare this to the global market for derivatives based on subprime mortgages. Banks began proliferating these products, selling them to thousands of institutions the world over while assuming that the risk of such behavior was under control. The scale of the derivatives market was bigger than any one player could appreciate, and much bigger than any one government agency could control, as capital controls were never instituted as they are in the insurance business. Add this to a structure that was completely unable to deal with a single institution going bankrupt, and you have the classic fragile system. Billions of people are taking part in a global economy, but a relatively small number of rapacious investment bankers at AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers end up threatening the entire economic system.
The phenomenon described by Taleb that is most applicable is the notion of fat tails and convexity. The bigger and more complex the system, the more we attempt to apply mechanistic and theoretical control systems that are unequal to the task of preventing disaster. Perhaps we control a lot – but that which slips by our understanding has bigger and bigger impact – a convex impact. On Wall Street, we had trillions in derivatives for which the risk was managed by even more complex financial products designed by ever-more sophisticated mathematicians. But when it blew, it blew up big.
And today, in Hong Kong, we have Snowden, one millions with security clearance, and things are blowing up big. Back in Washington we have a bunch of leaders suddenly aware of the fragility of the system.
What comes next?
Time for security to go from fragile to antifragile
The last week of chaotic revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programs call Taleb’s ideas into focus. Instead of thinking about how to create more classifications or more punishments, the United States Government needs to open itself to the notion that the security state has been expanded to a scale that will become ever more fragile, defeating the now-evident limitations of command and control. It is likely that the number of Mannings and Snowdens may increase and the damage they do could become exponentially more serious.
Here are a few structural trends that will make this dynamic even more fragile:
- Surveillance technology will become more powerful. From nanoscale sensors to smaller and more powerful processors, Big Brother tech is going to get more prevalent, not less. There will more tech, it will be more complex, and it will require more systems admins. Given the mission of agencies such as NSA, they will no doubt attempt to take advantage of this new tech – before America’s global adversaries do.
- Social attitudes are changing rapidly, and a generational shift is on the way in leadership. The US Intelligence Community, like the entire government, is welcoming a brand new generation into its ranks – a group with markedly different values. A common theme seen by sociologists, polling firms and the like is that Millennials tend to be more idealistic that previous generations. The Pew Research Center notes that they are more trusting of authority figures that Gen X or the Boomers – but they expect them to do the right thing.
You can question their actions all you want, but the Millennials Manning and Snowden have traded their freedom in for their ideals. As thousands of Boomers leave their top secret jobs every month, and thousands of Millennials are brought in to see behind the curtain of government secrecy, one speculates as to how many more people may question the plans that their forebears put into motion. And looking at the future of surveillance technology, those plans may look more an more invasive to those who are not already true believers. Out of the millions involved, it seems unlikely that Snowden is the last to socially defect in such a dramatic fashion.
What will it mean to go from fragile to antifragile? The typical response to fragility is to make something more robust. That would mean even more harsh penalties for leakers, deeper levels of security, more stringent psychological evaluation of those seeking top secret clearance.But the soul of antifragility is in designing systems that actually benefit from shocks. Perhaps the first step is making sure than American intelligence activities are strictly in line with our brilliantly designed Constitution – and that the American people are actually consenting for their tax dollars to be used in a certain way. Then, when leakers do emerge, we have only the problem of exposing specific intelligence gathering techniques to our adversaries. The leaks could show were something is going wrong; they might improve the system as a whole. As it stands, we have the double problem of the leaks themselves and hurriedly explaining to Americans that the US Intelligence Community isn’t following a playbook laid out history’s notorious secret police forces.
Intelligence will need to become more elegant, both in its techniques and its ethical underpinnings. The other option will be for the government to hold its breath and hope none of the millions of potential whistleblowers come forth. And as they say, hope is not an effective plan for the future.