Thursday, June 6, 2013

Garbage in, garbage out always applies - no matter who you are

In the process of writing a post for my tymshft blog, I linked to a web page that explained how the Central Intelligence Agency's location used to be concealed in various ways. The page is part of an "invisible government" series of pages, and the - um, narrative - seems to have been written some time between 1963 and 1965.

As part of the narrative, a then state-of-the-art CIA computer system is described.

One of the really spooky instruments at Langley is the CIA's electronic "brain," which stores and retrieves the mountains of information that flow into the building....

The brain is called WALNUT and it was developed just for the CIA by IBM. A desired document is flashed in front of the CIA viewer by means of a photo tape robot called Intellofax.

WALNUT and Intellofax, unlike humans, are infallible.

Um, hold it right there. NOTHING is infallible. (DISCLOSURE: I am a Lutheran, not a Roman Catholic.)

WALNUT worked by allowing a person to enter up to 25 search terms, which could then be used to retrieve a particular piece of microfilm.

But what if the search terms were entered incorrectly? It's been known to happen. As Dave Barry joked in his 1980s book on American History, the CIA apparently misplaced a file during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. According to Barry, the file revealed that Cuba had just overthrown its government to install Castro - and therefore would be very unlikely to overthrow its government to remove Castro.

Seriously, the CIA system relied upon the data that was supplied to it. Even if the search terms were entered correctly, and the data was retrievable, there is no guarantee that the data itself is correct. I joked about this in my tymshft post by noting that someone could purposely alter the data to fool the CIA. Or perhaps someone made an honest mistake - "whoops, I thought that Chairman Mao was absent from the meeting; I guess I was wrong."

More importantly, the WALNUT system - and many other systems - only provided data. In the early and mid 1960s, and even today, humans are required to interpret the data to derive the meaning behind it.

For example, let's say that WALNUT tells you that Nikita Khrushchev was absent from a particular public event. Does that mean that he was sick? Does that mean that he was attending a super-secret meeting with Lyndon Johnson? Or does that mean that he had been ousted from power?

That's why it's called the Central INTELLIGENCE Agency. Although its mission has changed at times, the primary responsibility of the CIA has usually been to gather the data and interpret its meaning. This allows the President - or, these days, the Director of National Intelligence - to use the CIA's interpretation and its recommendations to make policy decisions. (Or, to put it another way, to convert this raw data into wisdom.)

The same thing occurs outside of the spy world. For example, right now I am monitoring a specific situation as part of my job. Like a CIA agent, I am unable to tell you what I am monitoring. Unlike a CIA agent, the thing that I'm monitoring doesn't involve enemy agents. But I am relying upon data that I and others have gathered, and we are making decisions based upon this data.

And there has never been a case in which the data used to make policy decisions was known to be "infallible."
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