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The Insecurity of Information Overload

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, July 19 2010

As part of its two-year investigation into "Top Secret America," theWashington Post has posted an interactive navigator of the myriad connections between various government agencies and scores of government contractors. 

Not to in any way diminish what the Washington Post's two-year investigation into the growth of "Top Secret America" says about the distortion of American government post 9/11, the footprint of the intelligence community, the troubling power of government contractors, so on and so forth, but, reading the piece, a much more pedestrian element jumps out: the dangers of information overload. The institutions of government charged with protecting the security of the country's people are suffering from the same problem those very people are suffering from, circa 2010. There are, report the Post's Dana Priest and William Arkin, too many reports, too many briefings, too many players, simply too much information for anyone to make sense of, at least in the old-fashioned ways. Everyone's swamped. Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair is talking about the explosive growth of the security complex when he says, "the attitude was, if it's worth doing, it's probably worth overdoing," but you have to think that that could be a pretty good description of what's driven the explosion of digital information over a similar time period.

That might sound flip, but the investigation by Priest and Arkin suggests that the inability of government to parse and process enormous amounts of information is, well, leading to a pretty inefficient way of attempting to keep the country safe:

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials - called Super Users - have the ability to even know about all the department's activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation's most sensitive work.

"I'm not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything" was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn't take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen,he said, until he yelled ''Stop!" in frustration.

"I wasn't remembering any of it," he said.

In "Top Secret America," there's a near total mismatch between what all that information makes possible and the tools that people have to actually capitalize on it.

Read the rest of Priest and Arkin's first installment here. Perhaps ironically, given the above, the Washington Post is offering up several other ways for 'readers' to navigate all of the information driving the reporters' reporting. You can, for example, dig into all the data on the various entities that make up "Top Secret America," visually track the networks involved, and search all the relevant companies. The Post has, a little oddly, I think, presented those resource with about equal billing as the story-story itself. Those resources will no doubt be invaluable for some people, but for much of the Post's audience, I think, "more" might prove to be more obfuscating than clarifying. But that's just one woman's opinion. We're all figuring this out as we go along. All of us.