Open source and the military

We have recently launced a topic area on security in our wiki, and we regularly monitor P2P Warfare developments through a specialized tag in Delicious.

James send me an interesting article from the Open Anthropology blog which is a critique of the usage by the military of open source information. The article is interesting, though I tend to disagree with the fundamental premise, i.e. that we should let our actions guide by an ‘enemy’, and also because of the in my opinion dangerous conclusions, namely that we should no longer support open access and open source information because of the usage of it by the intelligence services.

Here a few interesting elements from the article.

First of all, the author reminds us that the actual practice of open access anthropological publishing is, largely, not a North American phenomenon:

there is still more cheering of open access in anthropology in North America, than there is actual practice; in other parts of the world, there is more of the actual practice, with less of the fanfare. For example, in the Directory of Open Access Journals, 83 % of open access journals in anthropology are published outside of North America, that is 43 of the 52 currently listed, with some of the leading places being (in no particular order) India, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, and even Estonia. Based on that alone, most of the talk about open access anthropology is coming out of the U.S., and most of the actual work in open access publishing is coming out of Asia and Latin America, outside of the arena of American anthropology.”

The author then relates a personal history of how his research on a radical movement in Trinidad generated the interest of the intelligence community, which he finds problematic.

In the process he describes the Open Source Information System of the US military, see here for details.

He comes up with a legitimate beef against practices that use open source as input, but private the resulting analytical intelligence:

What is most useful to the military, and to national security research, is free, easy, electronically manipulable data. The concept of open source used by the military institutions referred to above, is more problematic. While there are many different understandings of “open source,” few if any subtracting the vital role of the Internet in making it possible, one of the most attractive ideas is that one can borrow, remix, and re-present one’s product based on the products of others. Intelink-U, as we noted above, is closed to the general public, even while it makes use of the material produced by the broader public. It is ironic then that the precursor was named the Open Source Information System, since it did not open its own material to public scrutiny, hence: “what’s yours is ours, and what’s ours is ours.”

This then is the key warning by the author:

Let us keep in mind the broader issue, which is how the U.S. military and intelligence are looking for ways of incorporating scholars in producing a global surveillance net. One way is to bring social scientists on counterinsurgency and pacification missions. Another is to have them conduct analysis of stolen Iraqi documents, or to conduct fieldwork in areas of emerging or potential threat and describe the radicalization process and ways of counteracting it. Another is to comb through open access electronic resources.”

Conclusion: Knowing how not to be coopted will be one vital tactic for the Minerva period we are now entering..

From all this, the author then concludes that one should abandon a naive belief and practice in open access, and opt for tactical access. I find these conclusions, which call for writing research destined for private drawers, i.e. purposely making it difficult to access, really problematic. The set of strategies is more complex than that of course, and I recommend reading it for yourself, but all in all, it seems terribly regressive to me.

Clearly, when one produces open content and knowledge, it is universally available, and from that fact it follows also logically that it will be used by all kinds of parties, including those we do not approve of. But it is not the information that is problematical, but its usage, if that usage is not legitimate. The solution, closing down or filtering access, is much worse than the problem itself.

2 Comments Open source and the military

  1. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much for covering this so well. I am not comfortable with my own conclusions to be frank. In addition, one thing I was not really able to articulate: academia has the resources and the skills for inundating itself with a vast mass of published resources, and even so much gets neglected, much is misunderstood, there are raging disagreements, etc. I don’t see how, in practical terms, a relatively small cluster of military or intelligence personnel can derive anything but the most basic of data from this flood of academic writing. However, in extreme cases, where some of us have worked with groups that some governments have labelled “terrorist,” yes, we have to be really wary about what we do and what we write.

  2. Michel Bauwens

    Hi Maximilan:

    Thanks for your reponse. The way you put it in your comments, as a specialized response to specific circumstances, is of course entirely legitimate, as we all are in some way responsible for the results of our communication, though there as well, an argument could still be made for the overriding benefit of openness.

    I had read it as a more general statement though, on replacing open access with tactical access, and in that general sense, I believe it concedes too much in terms of reactivity to an opponent.

    Michel

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