U of T prof calls for intelligence agency watchdog

Security agencies charged with homeland defence don’t need more technology to gather intelligence, a University of Toronto history professor says.

Instead, they need technology that helps them make sense of what they know and share

that easily across departments and organizations, says Wesley Wark, who recently offered his perspective at a security seminar in Ottawa.

“”The classic problem for intelligence agencies in the past was they never had enough information, but now with all sorts of high-tech tools, most intelligence officers will tell you their real problem is they have far too much,”” says Wark.

“”They don’t have the tools or the people to allow them to sift through these huge streams of data to be able to pull out the pieces that are really significant.

“”In that context, the question is what can technology do? Technology created the problem, so what can it do to help fix it?””

Wark, an expert on Canadian and international intelligence and security issues and the author of several books and articles on the subjects, cites data management, language recognition, keyword search and filtering software as examples of the kinds of tools security agencies need to cope with the information overload they face.

But just having the right kind of technology isn’t the answer either, he warns.

Canadian security and intelligence organizations – apart from being widely misunderstood, overly secretive and underfunded – have deeply ingrained traditions of building walls of secrecy that have kept them from sharing information, he notes.

“”There’s a 60-year history of inventing and applying levels of clearance and classification (to people and documents) but that is the problem and not the solution,”” says Wark. “”It creates a very inflexible hierarchy. It serves to restrict the flow of information rather than facilitate it.””

Existing technology has the capacity to “”leap over some of those walls,”” he adds, but emerging software programs allow different agencies to create systems that let them protect information they don’t want to share while opening up to other agencies information they do want to share, something like the way two-way mirrors work.

Similarly, he says, the Smart Border initiative, the federal government’s 30-point action plan undertaken in partnership with the U.S. and announced in December 2001, which includes redesigned passports and technology solutions to speed trade across the border, puts the cart before the horse.

“”The first line of defence is generating the knowledge,”” he says. “”The tendency with the border security proposal is to assume the knowledge is there and it’s just a question of providing the technological means to package it, but I’m not so sure the knowledge we need is there yet.””

Wark, calls the idea of homeland security a “”kind of fiction”” that can’t truly be realized without turning Canada into a police state. As governments turn to technologies such as biometrics and identity cards, he foresees the need for some agency that will act as a watchdog on citizens’ behalf to ensure the government doesn’t overstep its bounds.

But so far, he says, Canadians have little to fear.

“”My own view of the matter is contemporary citizens in a highly-organized consumer capitalist society have already and long ago given up protection of our privacy in the pursuit of prosperity. It’s really a matter of potentiality and deciding what the appropriate measures are to monitor and control abuse.””

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

Share on LinkedIn Share with Google+