"Secret" Defence Conferences: The Shocking Truth

January 23, 2012

A 3-D model of San Francisco: image from Saab (click on photo for full-size version at Saab's website)

Holographic maps; video game processors powering (and funding) satellite imagery analysis; a 3-D picture of 130 square kilometres of Tripoli rendered from a mosaic of satellite photographs in under an hour; a company which boasts permanently staffed "offices" inside both the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, and sells products that help detect oil spills and navigate ships through ice floes... The preliminary "Focus Day" of the Defence Geospatial Intelligence 2012 conference in London covered some pretty surprising ground. But the biggest surprise to some readers may well be that I'm allowed to write about it in the first place. After all, it's a defence intelligence event, and they're notoriously secretive, and closed to all outsiders but particularly the media - right? Not quite.

My admission to DGI2012 came with an important caveat: I had to promise to tweet and blog about it. The idea that events like this are covert, that they happen outside of public scrutiny, exaggerates the sinister vibe that probably helps sell magazines and definitely powers conspiracy theories on their journey through cyberspace. But just because it's a better story doesn't mean it's true.

There are definitely some trade shows and talking-shops for those involved in the defence-intelligence complex which outsiders don't get to hear about. But a great deal of this kind of business is conducted in the open. DGI, in its eighth year, has a pretty thorough and informative website, which you don't need special permission to view, and which also makes clear that members of the media can attend for free if they'd care to ask. The same is true for events like DSEi, the bi-annual event held at ExCel in east London, which I'd always assumed was closed to the media after reading about it in Mark Thomas's book. Turns out all you have to do to get in to that is agree to not hand out flyers or stage some kind of demonstration, and have a couple of clippings you can send the organisers that prove you write on defence issues occasionally. Oh - and you have to wear "business attire".

The openness might seem counterintuitive - intelligence gathering is a knotty problem for those who prize transparency, because if you talk about what you're able to see, hear and understand, and explain a little about how you obtain your raw data, you risk tipping your hand to the people you're trying to keep an eye on. The understandable - and entirely legitimate - pressure from the public to know precisely what its money is being spent on in areas such as counter-terrorism or anti-piracy (I'm talking the high-seas variety here, rather than online file-sharing) pushes companies and agencies in the right direction, but the knowledge that they might give away enough tricks of the trade to enable a terror cell to carry out an attack understandably rubs up against the impulse toward open accountability.

But there's a down-side to secrecy, too: if you keep your capabilities under wraps, sometimes the people who could use the intelligence you're gathering don't know you've got it. And you can't foil a terror plot if the only people who know about it are spending half their time ensuring no-one else gets to find out. So events like DGI have a vital role to play: they enable professionals to get together to discuss the state of their shared art, and hopefully eliminate the accidental "stovepiping" of capability - where allies don't know what each other are up to and fail to share useful data and/or miss opportunities to boost their capabilities by collaborating rather than unintentionally competing. The risk of an adversary learning much from whatever may be made public seems small - if anything, a terrorist, pirate or insurgent is likely to read about advances in the GeoInt realm and feel that keeping their operations concealed is getting more difficult by the day, without learning how to circumvent the techniques and technologies.

The real reason you don't see many reports from events like this is that the things that are discussed are complicated: and I think there's an aversion in the mainstream media to telling complex stories. There were certainly snippets of information today that you could imagine seeing a piece on in a daily paper, but when they're investigated for a few moments there's little about them that would qualify as sensational. The titbit that a Canadian company supplied a mini UAV to rebel forces in Libya, for instance, has several controversial ingredients, but the aircraft wasn't one of the "killer drones"  the mainstream media write about so eagerly and with such scant understanding, but basically little more than a radio-controlled model aircraft with a camera attached. The revelation that DigitalGlobe, one of several commercial suppliers of satellite photography of the surface of the earth, stores every image they've ever taken sounds like a civil liberties lawsuit waiting to happen - until you hear in the next sentence that they're actually under a legal obligation to do so.

Which isn't to say that there aren't umpteen fascinating and eminently tellable stories coming out of this area of intelligence-gathering: why else do you think I'd go? It's just that they won't seem remarkable and exciting when translated into five-word bold-type headlines, or even 140-character tweets. And unfortunately, for much of the mainstream media at the moment, that makes these stories untouchable. I can't say for certain that I was the only journalist there today, and I know there'll be quite a few going tomorrow, when the conference proper gets underway: but the place was hardly groaning under the weight of Fleet Street's finest, even though it was anything but inaccessible. In some respects, this doesn't bother me: there are specialist titles I can write pieces for who don't assume their readers will be put off by the subject matter's intricacies. But the non-specialist reader surely ought to be given an opportunity to find out about this important and often spectacular work, as specialist and niche as it may be.

With that out of the way, tomorrow I'll write about some of the concepts, technologies, companies and initiatives at the conference. Which seems as good a point as any to remind you that you can sign up for email alerts of new posts here, or subscribe to the RSS feed (top right of this page).


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