Crowdsourcing Intelligence – Putting Smart Phones to Good Use

It is painfully clear that there are vast reservoirs of useful, untapped information in the hands of individuals across the world who are already tethered to the digital environment.  But so far, most of the discussion has focused on intelligence tools designed to passively comb for data – an absolutely valid undertaking.  But instead of searching, why not just ask people?

A quick scroll through an app store on your phone demonstrates that there is an app for just about anything under the sun.  You can review restaurants, order taxis, track your pizza, and waste countless hours with mind-numbing games.  So it should not be too much of a stretch to create an app that allows people to gather information that someone else wants, and share it with interested parties.  Yelp does that very publicly by providing a forum for people to rate and review restaurants and bars; it provides a service that adds value and draws more people to participate.  So if people will share information about restaurants or social connections, how can the intelligence community ask people questions, and provide a means for people to reply with both information and opinions?  Is there an app for that?

In recent discussions with Silicon Valley app creators, it became clear that customers will use an app if it meets one of three basic needs: it provides them information, it makes them money, or it is fun.  The best apps are able to combine these qualities to a certain extent; hence the explosion in popularity of Yelp, Lyft, and Tinder.  Each is fun, easy to use, provides information or connections, and in some cases earns you rewards or privileges.

There is already a brilliant example of an app that overlaps self-interest and profit, and Field Agent is using this to gather vast amounts of data related to marketing, purchasing, and personal preference.  Once you download the app to your iPhone and fill out the basic profile information, you become an “agent” and are free to accept taskings.  Based upon your geographic location, you might be requested to take a picture of a display at a WalMart, or check on the price of socks at Target.  With each successful completed task, Field Agent deposits money into your PayPal account – real money, not rewards or points.  The concept has caught on brilliantly, and there are over 400,000 agents around the world gathering data and answering surveys.  And Field Agent now can provide precise, real-time, and tailored answers to corporations who want to learn detailed information about their customer base, or how their products are competing in the marketplace.  It is a truly brilliant innovation, and it works because the app allows the agents and companies to communicate and conduct transactions with Field Agent serving as the intermediary.

The Field Agent model is wildly successful because its agents are collecting information that is publicly available, and they do not put themselves at risk in doing so.  But oftentimes, the intelligence community needs information that is less publicly available, and oftentimes sensitive to the government or individual that it pertains to.  If we were using an app to ask someone in Iran questions about their country or political leadership, the Iranian security apparatus might view that as espionage and act accordingly.  Therefore, it is imperative that any effort to gather information be concise in its desired outcomes, and steer well clear of efforts that would jeopardize its participants.

The solution may lie in a more nuanced understanding of the difference between “information” and “intelligence.”  There is nothing secretive or classified about information or data, it exists and does not possess any inherent value.  When you apply analysis and context to that information, it generates value and is therefore classified as intelligence.  And the information that the U.S intelligence community seeks is not all about nuclear weapons or terrorists; in fact, some of the toughest questions they struggle with involve attitudes towards democracy, the spread of poverty and disease, and the growth of political movements.  It would be unreasonable to ask someone to go snap a “selfie” with an Al Qaida leader and send back the GPS coordinates, but it would be far easier to ask if a well was working in a village, or who were the strongest political candidates in an upcoming election.

There is ample space for the collection of information around the world, and there is overlapping self-interest between those that have it, and intelligence community that is willing to pay for it.  An app along the lines of Field Agent might cost millions of dollars to fund all the various PayPal expenditures, but its cost would be marginal compared to the expense of elaborate human and signals intelligence collection.  It would not replace traditional intelligence collection, but augment it.  And the app would enable tailored tasking and validation of data, something that is infeasible when relying on passive information gathering.

Would people openly gather information for the intelligence community for a PayPal deposit?  Perhaps not.  But with shrinking budgets and burgeoning threats, the intelligence community is always looking for access to relevant and accurate information.  Smart phones and a PayPal account may not represent a revolution in the way we collect information, but it certainly presents an opportunity to improve our understanding of complex issues in far-flung corners of the globe.  Perhaps it is time to consider asking questions directly, and paying people for answers.

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author. They do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or Air University. 

About the Author(s)

Matthew Atkins

Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force and National Security Affairs Fellow (2013-14) at the Hoover Institution