For decades, the edifice of the U.S. intelligence community (IC) has been built on a single principle: that intelligence is best when it is secret. Within the IC, this principle seems so self-evident that it has never been seriously questioned. There is no discernable appetite for assessing the operational impact of shrouding intelligence work in secrecy, or for entertaining alternative, less secret means of achieving national security objectives.

But what if this principle is wrong? What if intelligence agencies have erred from their inception by promoting secrecy not merely as a tactic, but as a culture that infuses and defines nearly everything intelligence professionals do? If the qualities that typify our best intelligence work—rigor, objectivity, completeness, critical thinking, and curiosity—were focused inward on the intelligence process itself, assumptions regarding the necessity and efficacy of secrecy as a rule would not evade scrutiny.

So if, within the IC, we can summon the courage to suspend our disbelief—to challenge the notion that the IC must always be secret in order to be effective—then the steep price we pay for our bias toward secrecy becomes impossible to ignore:

  • This secrecy creates distrust between intelligence agencies and the American public, and leads politicians to publicly question whether intelligence collection is compatible with democratic values.
  • This secrecy discourages talented innovators from collaborating with the government to develop the technology we need to keep our country safe and to help America keep pace with its adversaries.
  • This secrecy chills the exercise of constitutional rights by members of vulnerable minority groups who feel threatened by the government’s broad surveillance authority.
  • This secrecy incites resistance to intelligence that highlights threats to the nation’s security, and prompts policymakers and segments of the public to question the accuracy and motivation of these assessments.
  • This secrecy places American companies at a competitive disadvantage in global markets, and emboldens foreign regulators to subject American businesses to onerous rules and requirements.
  • This secrecy prompts federal courts to impose troubling restrictions on intelligence and law enforcement agencies attempting to leverage new technology to advance critical missions.

These circumstances pose an intriguing question: on the margins, is it possible for intelligence agencies to be more effective by being less secret? Widely Distributed Detection Systems (WDDSs), a pioneering technology previewed in an article I authored for the Harvard National Security Journal, provides an ideal test case for this proposition. A WDDS is a network of personally owned devices (ranging from cars to cell phones) equipped with a specially designed accessory capable of detecting toxic substances, such as weaponized nuclear, chemical and biological agents. Every device within the network would constantly report its current location, along with the levels of nuclear, chemical, and biological agents detected at that moment. In a populated locality secured by a WDDS, it would be prohibitively difficult for a hostile actor to assemble or transport a WMD undetected because any networked device nearby would alert the system to the presence of the weapon and its location.  Notably, WDDSs are not an all-or-nothing proposition: a small percentage of the population, leveraging only devices that store relatively little sensitive information (e.g., cars as opposed to cell phones) could establish a viable capability to detect WMD threats.

WDDSs are not aspirational: the science is proven and the technology imminent. The most formidable obstacle to their use by the government is trust—specifically, the trust required for Americans to grant the government direct access to a continuing stream of data generated by their cars, laptops, tablets, cell phones or watches. As it happens, WDDSs provide the perfect petri dish for cultivating this trust because—through a fascinating alignment of incentives—both the government and the public should be equally invested in the success of this joint venture.

For the government, the most immediate benefit is an information web that enables intelligence and law enforcement officials to disrupt WMD attacks that slip below the government’s radar during the planning phase. But substantially reducing the threat from portable weapons of mass destruction is just the tip of the iceberg. If the government can successfully establish the trust required to attract broad public participation in WDDSs, that trust could unlock solutions to a whole host of information and development challenges the IC confronts. Envision a society where Americans freely share data from their personal devices with the government, justifiably assured that their anonymity will be protected and that the information will be used only to pursue narrow and compelling national security objectives. In such an environment, the IC is far better positioned to secure the cooperation and goodwill of private sector partners, foreign regulatory authorities and skeptical members of Congress (among others). Instead of fighting trench-by-trench to acquire critical information, the government could win numerous battles at once by establishing a new norm of voluntary, secure information transfers with the public.

Similarly, WDDSs offer benefits to the public that transcend the protection and peace of mind offered by a collection platform that in real time can identify nuclear, chemical or biological threats to the homeland. In a WDDS, the detection sensor is engineered as an accessory to the personal device, not hardwired into the device itself. This design choice is deliberate. It permits participants to opt in or out of the WDDS at any time simply by activating or deactivating the detection sensor. If the government violates the conditions of the WDDS enterprise—or otherwise acts in a manner widely understood to threaten the privacy and civil liberties of Americans—WDDS participants can register their disapproval by acting in concert to disable a key intelligence capability. Assuming this risk to incorporate WDDSs into the national intelligence architecture would be a powerful act of faith signaling the IC’s trust in the American people, and laying the groundwork for the public to reciprocate. The cutting-edge technology of WDDSs could thereby fulfill the original vision of the Founders by situating intelligence organizations exactly where they should be in a democracy: empowered by the people they are sworn to protect, and truly beholden to them as well.

Because public trust in WDDSs depends on anonymity, WDDSs could also establish important outer limits for domestic information gathering by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. For the government, the price of receiving locational data through WDDSs would be a commitment not to overlay this infrastructure with any additional tracking capability that could be cross-referenced to personally identify a WDDS participant. WDDSs thus have the singular potential to etch the line that privacy and civil liberties advocates have long sought to divine—a natural stopping point for public monitoring that ensures our society will not slide toward a dystopia where the government is irrevocably tangled in the private lives of its citizens.

Building the trust required to support WDDSs will compel the IC to learn new muscle movements and to tolerate novel, uncomfortable forms of risk. Among other things, this endeavor will require IC and law enforcement agencies to cooperate closely with representatives of private industry and civil society to oversee the acquisition, processing and use of WDDS data. But such collaborations are not a new ambition. To the contrary, WDDSs are the logical extension of increasingly vigorous efforts by intelligence and law enforcement agencies to partner with entities outside the federal government. These initiatives reflect a growing realization within the national security community that whole-of-government—but exclusively government—approaches to foreign intelligence threats can no longer adequately protect the American people. Perhaps, in the end, the primary value of WDDSs is not to diminish the threat of a portable WMD attack, but to liberate America’s intelligence and law enforcement communities to openly acknowledge the necessity of non-traditional partnerships—and embrace the legal and policy reforms that would enable these relationships to flourish.

Image: Wikimedia Commons