Tao of the Zentropist

June 26, 2013

Welcome to Surveillance Society

Governments and private industry have a vested interest in knowing what we are all about – should this come as a surprise to anyone in this age? The fact that Edward Snowden has publicly leaked information about the scope and substance of at least some (and perhaps not all) of the U.S. government’s ongoing programs will perhaps spur some much needed debate on the subject, but for those who find this revelatory, I would point to the public disclosure of ECHELON more than a decade ago as indicative of what direction the world is heading. Quite frankly, my own personal operating assumption has been that digital channels as well as voice communications have been subject to intercept and monitoring for a long time now; the only question was, how often was this capability actually used? It’s pretty disturbing that the default setting appears to be to capture and archive everything, in effect establishing the boundaries of the “haystack” before searching for “the needle.” And with questionable oversight and accountability, the potential for abuse is staggering, even as we are told that sprawling data collection is necessary to “keep us safe.”

BIG DATA AND ALL ITS IMPLICATIONS

These days, it seems that if you don’t have a substantial digital footprint, you don’t exist, and while privacy advocates might relish this, given the convenience as well as outright necessity in some instances of maintaining an online presence it’s increasingly hard to do. For example, business networking and simple prudence tend to enforce the notion that a professional profile on LinkedIn is a necessity to find or maintain employment. If you don’t have a profile, you risk being seen as hopelessly outdated or “out of touch,” and even if happily employed (and this includes owning your own business), many customers and more importantly, prospective customers expect to be able to find relevant information about you without expending too much effort. Public profiles are in part seen as a means of validation and possible future recruitment (and prospecting for those selling goods and services), as well as a tool for networking and business intelligence gathering.

As consumers, we tend to enjoy the benefits of data analysis and relevancy; the recommendation engines of leading commerce sites are based not only on our past purchase history but our browsing activity, comments, and even the profiles of other people suspected of harboring similar interests and habits online.  While this is arguably a convenience when we are in shopping and a way to introduce us to products that we might otherwise miss mode (as well as a great way for companies to encourage spur-of-the-moment consumption to boost their bottom line), this data trail follows us and can quickly start to define us.

ONCE YOU’RE IN THE SYSTEM, YOU’RE IN FOR LIFE

Another issue to consider is that once we have deliberately or inadvertently established certain patterns and behavioral attributes online, deviation from these norms could very well trigger algorithms which flag us for closer investigation. For example, if an individual goes from very active and robust use of email, social media and other online activity, and then abruptly trails off, who is to say that this doesn’t trigger certain surveillance tripwires? While an abrupt curtailing or termination of such activity might have very innocent explanations, it could also signal more serious concerns from the perspective of a government or corporation. From the corporate point of view, has this consumer lost interest in their offerings? Maybe it’s time to send coupons or other promotional material to re-spark interest. From the government point of view, is this individual now incapacitated, deceased or going to ground for perhaps more nefarious purposes? Would it be prudent to inquire into the individual’s health records, financial institutions or credit card providers to see what recent activity (or lack thereof) is revealed?

It has been observed that as surveillance grows and becomes more acceptable (or even palatable) to the populace, it has a corrosive effect on liberty. Robust access to behavioral data is a sure path to predictive profiling, and the potential for misuse or worse, misinterpretation of the data must give one pause, not to mention the ramifications of theft of such data by hackers or unscrupulous parties acting from not only outside the system, but possibly within it.

HOW DOES THIS BODE FOR AUTHENTICITY?

In social media and marketing, “authenticity” has become a buzzword du jour, used to convey the sense of “keeping it real” in one’s interactions with the outside world. I’ve historically felt that for those who feel the need to constantly harp on this subject, it raises into question how much of their authenticity is genuine and how much is manufactured, sort of like the illusion that is “reality TV.” Perhaps more insidiously, the more that one reveals to the world at large, the more this data can be mined, aggregated and analyzed not only in an effort to manipulate the individual’s consumer choices, but even to influence and to some degree control behavior and attitudes as well. While some might see this as paranoid or alarmist, social media accounts are a treasure trove of information which people voluntarily populate, requiring data collection and analysis, and perhaps occasional phishing attacks and social engineering to further exploit.

Ultimately, technology has enabled the Pandora’s Box of mythology to become reality, and like all things, has brought both welcome progress as well as arguably less beneficial developments to our world. We are fast learning, even in countries with democratically elected governments, that whether or not the political elite truly represent the “will of the people” is open to debate, and furthermore, that the vast bureaucracies and sprawling public and private apparatus established to enable modern societies is subject to exploitation from both within and without. Any thinking person who is not at least a little bit unsettled by the state of things deserves to realize that the new boss is exactly the same as the old boss…

February 26, 2009

Zentropism’s Applications for Homeland Security

I was recently asked by a colleague and friend that has been following my writings to devote a posting to the topic of Homeland Security, and the applications of the Zentropist approach towards law enforcement, counter-terrorism and private sector security consulting operations. This is actually a subject close to the heart, in part due to both past and current personal and professional associations that I keep, my undergraduate studies (my 2-part graduate level thesis was sadly somewhat prescient regarding today’s global political environment, developed during the autumn of 1991 and spring of 1992 with a focus on domestic counter-terrorism for Part I and counter-insurgency operations for Part II), as well as a close family member that works as a special agent for a federal agency that shall go nameless for now.

Needless to say, I firmly believe that the Seven Primary Attributes that are fundamental to the Tao of the Zentropist have direct bearing on the ability of a civilian (including sworn law enforcement personnel, who in my opinion should NOT be separated out from this grouping) or military operative/agent/officer to improve the skills necessary to effectively predict, identify, and disrupt potential terror operations.  If one thing is abundantly clear, the shocking (at least in the eyes of most Americans) events of September 11, 2001 were caused by not only a colossal failure of intelligence-gathering and information sharing among a myriad of often competing and dangerously bureaucratic civilian and military governmental agencies, but also by an inexcusable failure of imagination. Quite simply, folks that should have known better simply could not fathom the unconventional means that could be employed to sow terror and strike at the “soft underbelly” of a target, namely the United States, which in the case of the fundamental and malignant interpretations of Islam existing in certain Sunni and Shi’ite traditions, is the very manifestation of corruption and decadence.

One of the most important constructs of the Zentropist approach to life, whether as a tool used in the pursuit of one’s occupation or as a guide to self-improvement and mastery, is an appreciation for unconventional thought and the necessity of not becoming beholden to rigid interpretations of data, as well as a marked aversion to bureaucratic “group-think” and “passing the buck,” which sadly, seem to be the hallmarks of far too many institutions. Those who work in the security consulting / “personal protection” field understand that the moment one has to draw a weapon to protect a client (arguably one of the last lines of defense), there has already been a certain amount of  “failure” in the system; because if proper planning, including threat assessment and analysis and the resultant preventative measures, was performed prior to the assailant(s) breaching the “inner ring” of the protection circle, then the best efforts to circumvent the undesired action were obviously flawed.

As those who follow such things now know, the 9-11 hijackers could have been disrupted at several junctures in their ramp-up to operational status had the right people been able to put the pieces together. Occam’s Razor, which states that, “All other things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the correct one,” is a very useful axiom to keep in mind. It is absolutely mind-boggling, for example, that a flight school would not find it odd that students were interested in learning how to take off and fly commercial aircraft, but had little interest in landing. I’ve been around aviation long enough to hear pilots (at least those that intend to live to fly another day) remark that, “Take-off is optional but landing is mandatory.”

As much as I personally find the expression, “thinking outside of the box” to be repeated ad nauseam by those that don’t grasp its implications so as to begin to lose any meaning, it is important to acknowledge that we must never let our preconceived notions, cultural biases or ignorance and underestimation of the commitments of others deter us from seeing through their eyes so we might better understand likely behavioral patterns. We must never become so blind to the fact that when our antenna is clearly telling us that the other party is doing “X,” we fail to address this threat because in our worldview, “X” is unfathomable and therefore, we falsely conclude that the other party is surely doing “Y.”

While Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character (to our great loss, in my opinion), his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a keen observer that made Holmes’ deductive reasoning and ability to read his environment based on subtle clues feel so real as to border on the preternatural. Yet these skills, and more important, the attitude and discipline necessary to develop them, are well within the realm of the possible and align quite fittingly with the capabilities of the Zentropist. As the fictional Holmes commented to his fictional friend/companion/biographer John Watson, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

One of the challenges of the Zentropist is deciding where the line of “impossible” begins and accepting that even the “improbable” must be given credence when all available evidence points in that direction.

You don’t build a hypothesis, much less a theory, by manipulating the “facts” (which includes errors of omission) or observable phenomena to fit your conclusions; you must collect, parse and analyze all available data and then seek to deduce patterns which explain that which you’re witnessing.

This is made all the more important, with the stakes dangerously high, when it comes to maintaining the security for human life, whether individual or collective.  Because when you play on the “defensive,” you need to be right 100 percent of the time, while the “offense” potentially only needs to be right once…

In a future posting, if there’s sufficient interest, we can delve into Zentropism’s applications in asymmetrical warfare, a.k.a. counter-insurgency operations or low-intensity conflict, which are often related to but distinct from counter-terror operations…

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