Dr Daniel Baldino is a Senior Lecturer at Notre Dame University. He is the editor of Spooked: The Truth about Intelligence and Security in Australia.

Given the recent laser-like focus on electronic intelligence collection and the reach of NSA eavesdropping, it is good to see analysts like Rory Medcalf thinking ‘outside the square’ and devoting attention to the less fashionable dimensions of the intelligence game, the ancient practice of spies gathering data via human sources, known as human intelligence or HUMINT.

So alongside the problems associated with privacy, security overreach and the rise of super computers and satellite systems, it is worth thinking about the extent to which HUMINT can fill collection gaps as well as where it sits in regard to current policy and funding priorities.

One of the conclusions of the US 9/11 Commission Report was that, despite its many challenges, HUMINT as an intelligence gathering asset had been comparatively neglected (versus signals intelligence or SIGINT) and remained badly under-resourced. Intelligence reform should therefore include the production, and hopefully retention, of more seasoned, experienced field agents. Good news for James Bond fans.

Also somewhat side-lined in current controversies about intelligence collection is the next step of the intelligence process: analysis.

Once any data is gathered and stored, this information must then be evaluated in order to help inform policy decisions. There is no point in gathering bulk electronic information just because you can and then failing to provide pertinent, value-added assessment to assist national leadership.

In other words, despite an increasing sophistication in obtaining vast collections of metadata, it only really useful if you can do something with it. This leads to interesting questions about the possibility of indiscriminate over-collection and the actual ability of the intelligence community to use metadata to accurately draw interferences, for example, about an individual’s pattern of behaviour – including whether they might be a terrorist.

So, alongside debate about legal and ethical guidelines, another question arises: to what extent is this avalanche of information collated into a relevant and timely ‘bigger picture’? It is very hard to tell.

We should care about how effective intelligence agencies are at finding and analysing relevant patterns as a result of massive snooping operations. What about the downsides of profiling and the potential pitfalls of making inferences from disjointed data, such as false positives?

Successfully ‘joining the dots’ remains a highly challenging task. But have we moved from missing dots to creating too many unmanageable dots? The variety and scope of NSA operations does raise questions about whether intelligence activities have been adequately prioritised. Recent revelations should also place a spotlight on the quality, rather than just quantity, of intelligence analysis.

Photo by Flickr user Tony Fischer Photography.