Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Exactly What Happens When You Combine PSYOPS and IPB...


From the very excellent Wondermark by David Malki!!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Pokemon Go Tips For Intelligence Professionals

Damn things are all over the office now!
There is no way any reader of this blog has not heard of Pokemon Go at this point.  This smart phone based augmented reality game gained more users than Twitter in less than a week. 

There has been a lot of concern in the press and elsewhere about both privacy and security. Obviously, the best way to stay secure is to simply not to play.  This may be a mistake.  As the first mainstream augmented reality application, Pokemon Go provides a real insight into what the technology does and doesn't do.  

Just as the auction house in World of Warcraft influenced online currencies such as bitcoin, the world of Pokemon Go will inevitably shape augmented reality applications in the future.  Not playing is similar to refusing to travel to another country simply out of security concerns - it might be warranted but don't expect your analysis of a country to be very good if you have never been there.

Even if you have no interest in playing, others you know will want to.  Under these circumstances, it seems logical to think about what are the best practices for maintaining both personal safety and cyber security.

One of my contacts (Thanks!) within the intel community put together a tip sheet for friends and family and, having read it, it sounds like good advice for anyone who wants to play Pokemon Go with a reasonable level of safety and privacy.  Remember, it is a tip sheet and is designed to be helpful, not comprehensive.  If it is not covered here, just remember D2S2 – Don’t Do Stupid Stuff. 

  • Only download the official version of the Pokemon GO application from the developer (Niantic), from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store. 
  • GPS and a data connection (either WiFI or cellular (30/4G) data) arc required in order to play. Avoid playing in any areas where you don't want to be geo-tagged. 
  • Don't use your personal Gmail account to log in, as this not only links your personal information with your Pokemon GO activity (which includes GPS data), it could also expose your Google credentials to the app owner. Although security holes have been patched, previous versions of the app required extensive permissions to your Google account: make sure your app is up to date. Either create a Pokemon Trainers Club account or create a "throw-away" Gmail account to use specifically for this purpose. 
  • Use a trainer name (screen name) that is not already associated with you through other sources (other online games, online communities, etc.) and does not contain any personal information (part of your real name, birthday, etc.). Currently you cannot view other players or information about other players through the interface, except the trainer name and Pokemon name at gyms or the trainer name who places lures at Pokestops. However, this feature may be added in the future. 
  • Be mindful of your surroundings when using this augmented reality (AR) mobile game, especially when taking pictures of Pokemon during the capture process. Note what's in the foreground and background, including reflective surfaces and information revealing identity and or location (street signs, vehicle license plates, Government buildings, etc.). Disabling AR makes Pokemon easier to catch! The location where you take a picture of a Pokemon is also likely embedded in the picture's metadata. 
  • When physically visiting Pokestops and gyms, maintain awareness of your surroundings. Travel with a buddy or remain in your vehicle with the doors locked.  It is not necessary to physically enter the real-world establishment where a Pokestop or gym is located, you may be able to interact with the Pokestop/gym from the curb or even across the street. 
  • For the safety of yourself and others, do not attempt to catch Pokemon or interact with Pokestops or gyms while driving. Pull off the road if it is safe to do so, or revisit the area while someone else is driving.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

How To Make Decisions

A reporter recently sent out an open call for input for an article he was writing about how to make good financial decisions.  Since I don't know if he will use any of what I said in his article and since I kind of liked my answer (even though I know it is not complete), I thought I would drop it here as well.

While most people think about espionage when they think about intelligence, an analyst is the person in an intelligence organization that makes decisions about what the other guy – the enemy, the criminal or the competitor – is likely to do.  These kinds of decisions are the hardest kind, with incomplete and potentially deceptive information and under conditions of extreme time-pressure and uncertainty.  

Financial decisions, particularly those made by individuals or small business owners are often very similar to these kinds of decisions (albeit with lower stakes).  As a result, virtually all of my research is also applicable to the kind of decision-making that is important when it comes to finances. 

I know you are going to get lots of advice but I have two items that I think are often overlooked.  The first is to separate what we call intelligence questions from operational questions.  

An intelligence question is a question about something that is important to your success or failure but is outside your control.  An operational questions is about something that is important to your success or failure but is under your control.  You analyze these two kinds of questions differently. 

Things that are under your control are much easier to analyze.  You usually know the data or you know where to get it.  You have some understanding of how much uncertainty exists in the data and how much of it you can weed out with statistics or whatever methods you use.  

With things that are out of your control – what your competitor is going to do or how the price of oil is likely to change or how low will the used car salesman go – you have to use a different set of tools and skills to understand these kinds of questions.  There is much more uncertainty here and it is much more difficult to narrow it.  In addition, there is likely some degree of deliberate deception going on – think about the used car salesman and how he or she is trying to sell the features and not the flaws of his 2006 Camry.


Second, the important skill to develop in answering these type of questions (particularly intelligence questions) is estimation.  Collecting facts is important, indeed essential, to answering questions but it is easy to fall victim to collecting facts simply for the sake of collecting them or to give into various cognitive biases which can easily make whatever time and money you spend collecting facts worthless.  

Since understanding what is likely to happen next is more important to planning than understanding what is happening now and since most of the future is more or less unknowable, the ability to make a good estimate is critical to good decision-making.  

Philip Tetlock has done fantastic research on this as has Douglas Hubbard.  I recommend both of them to your readers.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Umbrella Man: A Must-See Cautionary Tale About The Inherent Unlikelihood of Conspiracy

This is not to say that there are no conspiracies, but only to say that analysts should be cautious about leaping to that kind of conclusion at the outset. (If you can't see the video, click on this link to view on the NY Times page)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Fermi Questions: Creating Intelligence Without Collection

Collection is, for many, a fundamental part of and, in extreme cases, the essential purpose of, intelligence.  What would we be without all our drones and spies and sensors?

What if I told you that you can do intelligence without any collection at all?

You probably wouldn't believe me ... but ... you'd likely admit that the advantages would be substantial.  It would be blazingly fast - no waiting around for satellites to come into position or agents to report back.  It would be mindnumbingly safe - virtually no footprint, no assets to risk, no burn notices to issue.  It could reduce as much as 90% of the uncertainty in any given intelligence problem at essentially zero cost.

What is this prodigious procedure, this miracle methodology, this aspirational apex of analytic acumen?

Fermi questions.

Enrico Fermi was a mid-twentieth century physicist who created the first nuclear reactor.  He also taught physics at the University of Chicago.  He liked to ask his students questions like, "How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?"  

In the pre-internet days, this kind of question required a tedious trip through the phone book to determine the number.  Even today, using brute force to answer this question is not a trivial exercise.  Students almost always balked at the work involved.

Fermi's approach, however, was different.  He wasn't asking, "What is the most direct route to the answer to this problem?"  Instead he asked a slightly different and, for intelligence purposes, vastly more useful, question: "How close can I get to the answer with what I already know?"

So.  What did Fermi already know?  Well, the population of Chicago is about 3 million and from this he could immediately devise that there could be no more than 3 million piano tuners and that the minimum was none.  That may not sound particularly useful but just recognizing these facts already limits the problem in useful ways and points the way towards how to make the estimate better.

We know, for example, that the number of piano tuners has to be driven by the number of pianos in Chicago.  How many of those 3 million people have pianos?  Here we could tap into our own experience.  How many people do you know?  How many of them have pianos in their houses?

Some will say 1 in 10.  Some might say 1 in 100.  Even this wide range is very useful.  Not only does it narrow the problem significantly but also it highlights one way in which we could get a better estimate if we absolutely have to (i.e get a more exact number of people with pianos in their houses).  But we want to do this without collection so let's carry on!

With the average household being a shade under 4 people, we can estimate that there are about 750,000 households in Chicago.  We can further refine that to between 75,000 and 7500 pianos (depending on whether you thought 1 in 10 households had a piano or 1 in 100).

Oh, I know what you  are thinking!  What about all the non-household pianos - at schools and such - that you are conveniently leaving out.  I would say that my high end estimate of the number of pianos includes them and my low end estimate does not so they are in there somewhere.  It is a "good enough" answer for right now for me.  For you that might not be the case, however, so you can make your own estimates about what these numbers might be and put them into the mix.

Working about 250 days a year (weekends, vacation and holidays excluded) on about 2 pianos a day means that Chicago needs between 150 and 15 piano tuners.  

How many piano tuners are there really in Chicago?  Wolfram Alpha is one of the best search engines to use to answer these kinds of questions.  It permits users to ask natural language questions and then dips deeply into public databases to extract precise answers.  When asked, "How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?" this is what you get:


Note that Wolfram gives us the number of all musical instrument repairers and tuners - 290 as of 2009.  Certainly not all of them are piano tuners.  In fact, once you consider just how many instruments need to be professionally tuned besides pianos and you subtract the number of repairers of all kinds of instruments that do not tune pianos, you are lucky to have a third of these musical instrument repairers and tuners who actually can tune a piano.

More importantly a third of 290 falls comfortably within the 15-150 limits derived from our Fermi process.

Without leaving our chairs.

Intelligence without collection.

What if relying on Fermi questions results in really wrong answers?  First, I could say the same thing about any intelligence methodology.  Very few of them have been tested to see if they actually improve forecasting accuracy and all of them take time and resources to implement.  All of them can be wrong.  Here, at least, both the logic chain and the path to improving the estimate is obvious.

Second, I would ask, what level of precision do you actually need?  Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin used to say, "The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems."  Augustine was talking about airplanes but he could have just as well been speaking of intelligence analysis.  Getting ever more narrow estimates costs time and money.  Good enough is often - in fact, surprisingly often - good enough.


Third, it is unlikely to give you really wrong answers - say one or two orders of magnitude off.  This is one of the best benefits of going through the Fermi process.  It allows you to have a good sense of the range in which the right answer will likely fall.   For example, if, before you had done a Fermi analysis, someone came up to you and said that there are 100,000 piano tuners in Chicago, you might not question it.  A Fermi analysis, however, suggests that either something is really wrong with your logic or, more likely, that the person does not know what they are talking about.  Either way, the red flag is up and that might be just enough to prevent a disastrous mistake.

You can easily try this method yourself.  Pick a country that you know little about and try to estimate the size of its military based on just a few easily found facts such as population and GDP.  Once you have gone through the process, check your answer with an authoritative source such as Janes - oh! - and please do not hesitate to post your results in the comments!

By the way, I routinely use this method to get students to answer all sorts of interesting and seemingly intractable problems like the number of foreign government spies working within the US Intelligence Community.  The answer we get is usually right around 100 which always seems to surprise them.

Finally, if you are interested in integrating Fermi Problems into your tradecraft, there are lots of good resources available.  One of the best has been put together by the Science Olympiad, which actually holds a Fermi Problem competition each year.