Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Decoding good intelligence

Transparency – in the sense of a good public understanding of the role and value of intelligence – is essential to support.

Timeliness (Jon Tyson/Unsplash)
Timeliness (Jon Tyson/Unsplash)

For an enterprise funded by the state, the public knows surprisingly little about intelligence activities. This goes far beyond the necessary secrecy of the work involved – but more knowing little about the intricacies of what constitutes good intelligence to facilitate an informed debate in a democracy.

In research published this month by the journal Intelligence and National Security, I have sought to set out what good intelligence looks like in practice. This study is based on nearly 50 interviews within the Australian National Intelligence Community (NIC) to identify the essential characteristics of good intelligence, revealing that it must be timely, purposeful, actionable, accurate, unbiased and provide value-add.

This research is the first time that contemporary intelligence leaders and practitioners have been interviewed about their perceptions regarding the characteristics of good intelligence, and how they apply these characteristics in practice in the digital age. The big data landscape, comprising information abundance, digital connectivity and ubiquitous technology has also transformed the context and processes of intelligence production.

It is often argued that there are profound differences between intelligence types, whether security, foreign and law enforcement intelligence, however, this research indicates that the key components of good intelligence are in fact areas of consensus between all participants – at least at a macro level. In the Australian NIC the key characteristics of good intelligence look very similar, transcending the diverse missions and values of individual agencies, although the process of achieving them will often vary.

Understanding of intelligence agencies and their activities couldn’t come at a more consequential time for democracies. Data and emerging technologies are posing new threats, from the friction caused by disinformation and information warfare, to mainstreaming targeting and surveillance capabilities, to social harms such as deepfake pornography.

Emerging technologies also present specific challenges for intelligence communities. Trust in evidence and authority has shifted, requiring multiple sources and an environment where government comes under far more scrutiny and challenge than ever before. There is also a shift in the role secrecy plays in intelligence, with both a need and an expectation for more transparency from intelligence agencies to maintain credibility and confidence.

The exponential increase in the quantity, velocity and hyperconnectivity of data has also reduced the speed of relevance for decision-makers when it comes to intelligence. While the core characteristics of good intelligence remain, the context within which they are pursued has been transformed.

More work is needed to combat the susceptibility of the digital landscape to disinformation and interference, because global efforts to date have not worked.

In Australia, an independent intelligence review is underway, examining whether the NIC remains ready to respond in complex and changing circumstances to protect Australia’s security, prosperity and values. In a submission with colleagues, we urged the review to consider how the NIC is tackling a number of areas related to emerging technologies, including improving its digital and physical intelligence infrastructure, maintaining trust and secrecy in the NIC, and strengthening partnerships and alliances.

The remit of national security is increasing and includes more complex and diffuse threats – from climate change, economic prosperity and migration to public health, energy security, resilience and “hybrid” warfare. Tackling these requires joining up the parts of government which hold the puzzle pieces and taking a more holistic view to seeking longer-term international advantage. As the role of intelligence expands, the need for transparency is amplified.

And though Australia doesn’t have a federal election planned for 2024, globally, it will be the biggest election year in history. Seventy-six countries are scheduled to hold elections, which will see more than half the world’s population headed to polls to cast a ballot in 2024. Disinformation will continue to present a huge challenge during elections. More work is needed to combat the susceptibility of the digital landscape to disinformation and interference, because global efforts to date have not worked.

Exploring the complexities of intelligence is not merely an academic exercise but a vital step towards demystifying a critical element of national security. My research is part of a larger project, including a forthcoming book on the impact of big data and emerging technologies on intelligence production, which outlines the way data abundance, digital connectivity and ubiquitous technology have disrupted national security. Intelligence communities often lack the digital infrastructure and tools to exploit data fast enough to produce results useful to policymakers.

A transparent understanding of what constitutes good intelligence and how it is achieved is not only critical for consumers of intelligence but also instrumental in ensuring public support for the intelligence community.

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