Help Wanted: Become an intelligence agent
George William Darrell Pickett passed away January 29, 2023 at 4:00 a.m. at the age of 92. This may not be of any importance to any of you, but to my family it was a loss. This was my wife’s grandfather.
The reason why I have added his name and passing to this blog is because he was 92 years of age and I have been trying to wrap my head around not only a life that long, but a life that long in THIS century.
Imagine what he saw. Imagine how things changed as he watched.
92 years ago the world was in the early years of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted through the late 1930s. Al Capone was charged, found guilty and sent to Alcatraz, construction was beginning on the Empire State Building, the first around-the-world flight occurred and the Star Spangled Banner became the National Anthem.
When Grandpa Pickett was ten years old Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands during World War II. At age 18 he witnessed Israel becoming a state.
As Grandpa was in his high school years, the Pentagon was built, Allied troops successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy in France, and the first programmable electronic computer was unveiled. It was 1946. Grandpa Pickett was 16 years old.
When Grandpa was 24, IBM presented the world’s first electronic calculator in the United States, made with transistors, something highly revolutionary and technological for the time. It cost $80,000.
It was not until Grandpa was 41 years old that the first email was ever sent. The email, sent by a man named Ray Tomlinson was just random letters from the keyboard, no readable message. It did not matter; Ray was the only one with the ability to do such a thing so he sent it to himself. Ray did manage to place himself in the history books twice that day as he experimented with the @ symbol between the username and the name of the machine.
It was not until Grandpa’s 51st birthday that IBM stepped up with the first personal computer and three days after Grandpa Pickett turned 60, a man by the name of Tim Berners-Lee created the first website.
It was 1990.
In 1995, Larry Page and Sergey Brin collaborated on a search engine called BackRub. Struggling to market the poorly named (and new) tech company, they sought to rename the company “googol”, which is a mathematical term represented by the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.
It was obvious that leaving the marketing to the nerds was not a good idea and in 1998 investor Andreas Maria Maximilian Freiherr von Mauchenheim genannt Bechtolsheim stepped in to help take the new company to the world. The company was officially registered as “Google”. Grandpa Pickett was 68 years old.
As Grandpa turned 70, statistics showed that 41% of adults were using the internet. And 40 million Americans were shopping online. Two years later over 55 million people were using the internet to do their jobs. Four months after Grandpa’s 75th birthday YouTube was created.
At age 82, Grandpa saw 66% of internet users on Facebook and 12% were adopting Instagram. Facebook reached 1 billion monthly active users, making it the dominant social network worldwide.
At the time of his passing, Grandpa had 54 friends on Facebook, had 5 pictures and it was rumored that he had multiple accounts because of lost passwords.
So why this journey through internet history? Because as I think about what 90+ years has seen, we need to realize that the acceleration of technology is posing new threats faster than we can track them or prepare for them.
Online radicalization processes have been of major concern, not only in the area of terrorism, but in the wider field of grievance-based violence. In fact, recent work has introduced a comparative approach that builds on the commonalities between perpetrators of, for example, high school shootings, hate crimes, and terrorist attacks.
Over the past decade, the way in which the Internet presents, selects, connects and curates information, by virtue of its architecture as much as through user activity, has been identified as particularly concerning in the context of extremist ideologies.
While violent extremism itself is not new, the speed at which individuals are radicalized is a relatively new phenomenon and is matching the acceleration of technology step for step. There is an ease with which extremists navigate the world online that has never been seen before.
And it is not just the extremism itself but also the vast availability of the tools needed to carry out missions, schemes and attacks. Last night as I was sitting at my desk, I was able to navigate the web easily locating not only the parts I needed but the instructions necessary for me to begin building ghost guns in my own home. With just a little more time spent I was able to locate the original plans the Tsarnaev brothers used to create their backpack bombs for the Boston Marathon.
Today, radicalization is happening online, for free, and unfortunately in our own living rooms.
I recently had an experience dealing with a young teen who had, in his “free time” had begun to research characters from a movie. This search quickly brought him to websites, manifestos and literature offered by groups that held the same beliefs as the character in the movie. That discovery, in less than 6 weeks had turned into the radicalization of this young man which was only caught by his alert parents because he had begun to use an anarchist symbol as his signature.
Unlike 20 years ago, when Grandpa was only 70 years old, violent extremists can utilize the internet to interact, send messages, gather intel and share. Everything that makes the internet a wondrous world of discovery makes it an evil playground for monsters.
I have to admit that I am not sure I can go through my next 30 years at the pace that Grandpa did. I am not sure that I can witness this acceleration. If measures are not taken by the response world soon, we will soon have no ability whatsoever to combat the threats of the future.
At one time, when Grandpa was still in grade school, intelligence became crucial to the war effort. The military has never let up in its quest for deeper and broader intelligence but the rest of us? We are reactionary. The world of first response has yet to understand that if we do not use open source intelligence at some level we will soon just become victims of those that actively manipulate it. As we grow more aware of terrorist activity on the internet, the word “intelligence” should no longer belong only to the military but should be sought after by first response agencies nationwide.
It is frustrating to me when I speak to a firefighter that is not aware of a weather forecast for severe weather that may include tornadoes. Why would you not know this? Two clicks of a button and there is a plethora of weather information including long range forecasts and even suspected damage or effects. Why would you choose to be a firefighter that is not aware of an impending storm that could affect your job, your response and the outcome of calls? Why would you not want to at least see if the week was going to present obstacles throughout the week like possible power outages, flooding and blocked roadways?
Now apply this to terrorism, civil unrest and health threats.
While law enforcement agencies are beginning to use open sources for intelligence gathering more and more, there is still a long way to go. There are examples of this when we watch coverage of a shooting incidents. Within hours of an event, law enforcement will often announce (in a press conference) that the shooter had been posting threats online using Facebook or Twitter.
Why is this always afterwards?
More and more large agencies and large departments have the resources to designate an individual or staff to monitor a wide range of online platforms in order to detect threats, but a majority of agencies do not have this luxury or funding which leaves a large amount of agencies in the dark until after the fact.
Open source intelligence gathering (OSINT) does not have to be done by intelligence agents with bots, AI-enabled risk analytics and specialized search software. Imagine the shift in awareness your agency would have if you collectively monitored local platforms during your time on the internet both at home and at work?
Targeted and automated collection against a wide range of online platforms is fundamental to detecting extremism and radicalization as well as other threats such as severe weather and shifts in a pandemic!
Grandpa Pickett never really embraced technology like the rest of us. He was content to read his news in a paper and watch the news at suppertime. And that is okay. He wasn’t a responder.
For those of us that walk and attempt to operate in a world that is literally creating threats on a daily basis in a surreal automation, we need to be more aware and we cannot wait for the day that technology creates a means of notifying us of every threat because that technology will always be behind those threats that have created their own avenues of destruction on the same internet.
Whether it is a climate-related threat or a local Antifa group, a disgruntled employee at a local factory or a new strain of viral infections, information is much easier to access and there is no reason to not take advantage of it. From EMS and fire to utility companies and hospitals, using OSINT even briefly a few times a week could make the all the difference and might even save lives.
The online world is changing fast Threats are coming faster. Search something - See something - Say something.
We are all in this together after all.