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What Intelligence Is Not

(“Proof of ‘Real Housewives’ star’s fiancé cheating!”), in our guilty-pleasure tv binges (almost every other shot in “Mob Wives” or in case files on “Law & Order”), and in the news (convenience store footage of robberies). From a gumshoe’s grainy black and white image taken from a cafe or hotel balcony, to sophisticated satellite images with timestamps and coordinates, these images evoke a sense of spying, while fueling our fears that every camera lens (public and obscured) is recording our every move… and that the pictures can and will be used against us.

There is a continuing great and valid debate about citizens’ rights to privacy regarding cameras in public, their usefulness, and what is done with the hours of footage and millions of pixels from images of everyday people going about their daily lives. We hold varying levels of trust (or mistrust, as the case may be) in whose eyes are behind the lenses, where the images are stored and secured, and “how it looks” to someone else when they see us on film.

While concerns may rise about Big Brother watching our every move, we have also become a bit numb in certain societies to ever-watchful eyes. Those of us who live in big cities around the world are especially desensitized to cameras all around, but ask any man on the street, and he will most likely tell you that he believes data is being collected about all of us, all of the time. People believe it’s the way of the world we live in, so we should just be ready for our close-ups.

The images on our computer, television, and movie theater screens reinforce the belief that nefarious people, whether they claim to be on our side or not, are sitting in dank rooms, pouring over footage and phone records of any and every body. Some people actually believe that the National Security Agency is “just getting intel on all of us,” making intel a buzzword and intelligence a part of our vernacular.

Without delving into the debate about right to privacy, we can say definitively that this view is all wrong.

It’s Not All About You (Specifically)

Persistent Surveillance Systems, a private technology company, has been in the news[1] because it came to light that their plane-mounted cameras were employed by the city of Baltimore in early 2016 to record images spanning over 25 square miles for up to 10 hours a day… without the taxpaying citizens being aware of it.[2] As Compton (California) Mayor Aja Brown has stated, “There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily.” The outcry of Baltimoreans was that their own government was spying and collecting intelligence on its residents and visitors.

But it was not.


Persistent Surveillance Systems’ images have been used in cities to solve crimes for several years

Photo Credit: Persistent Surveillance Systems)

It is important that we have a clear understanding of a few important points: First, images from the planes’ altitude reduce people on the street to mere pixels, rendering faces indistinguishable. And the cameras also do not operate 24 hours a day. Furthermore, as we discussed in a previous blog post on intelligence methodology, the cameras themselves provide only the optics— intelligence has to have a goal; the data cannot exist solely for its own sake (or the machinations of others), and the methodologies of science and law are checks and balances that protect us from who collects the data and how that data is used.

But the main thing we need to have a clear understanding of is the fact that this is not intelligence.

Intelligence Is A Step Further

What laymen often refer to as “intel” is actually surveillance.
“Surveillance is used by governments for intelligence gathering, the prevention of crime, the protection of a process, person, group or object, or for the investigation of crime.”[3] The differentiator is that surveillance - the camera images from above, from CCTV, and even from hidden agents’ pen cameras - is an active part of data collection for intelligence, but it is not intelligence itself.

Surveillance and its legality (in whole or in part) is the primary issue with which people take umbrage in regard to the NSA, FBI, and The Patriot Act in the United States. People simply and justifiably do not want to have their internet search histories, phone calls, and whereabouts tracked and recorded without clear cause and notification. We fear that all of this data is used to compile some type of intelligence file that could be used against us, all without our knowledge or consent.

“Intelligence differs from surveillance in that it constitutes a further step in the process of managing the information obtained: monitoring aims to search for and obtain the most relevant information for our environment interests, while Intelligence emphasizes the analysis and evaluation of the results obtained from the monitoring based on different "indicators" or analysis types. This is presented in the form of reports aimed at facilitating decision-making.”

Surveillance alone does not stop criminal activity (although the presence of visible cameras may thwart it), nor does it bring the bad guys to justice. That’s intelligence. The data from surveillance, combined with intelligence methodology, are what aid investigators and agents to get the complete picture, so to speak, and figure out the details and truths to keep us safe. To break it down further, consider surveillance data versus information— you can collect data, but you can not glean any valuable information from it. Intelligence is actually getting information out of data.

In the famous case of the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013, scores of cameras from the city, as well as pictures and video clips from attendees’ smartphones and digital cameras, were scoured and studied to lead to the suspects of the horrific crime. The images were the surveillance, but the technology used to identify faces, the questions the agents asked, and the information checks— these aspects were all a part of intelligence. Surveillance is not a collection discipline; it is but a part of the methodology.

Shift Your Thinking About Intelligence

Whether it is a government entity using cameras to get images within its borders, a telecomm company keeping a list of all phone calls and text messages, an ISP keeping details on computers’ ISP addresses and internet usage, or the monitoring of phone calls by the NSA, remember that this is surveillance, which is to serve a greater purpose in intelligence, which is to maintain safety and to catch the true bad guys. It’s how the information gathered from surveillance is used that truly matters, and despite what the headlines tell you, it is mostly for good over bad.

The growth and popularity of Internet of Things and Machine Learning have us encounter uses and processes of the surveillance and intelligence world in our everyday lives in much smaller ways to enhance and to protect our persons and possessions— a smart watch can monitor stats that can be studied and interpreted to help you stave off an impending health issue; cookies and tracking mechanisms on our computers and digital devices can help us use an app to locate them if they are lost or stolen; satellites, apps, and algorithms can detect traffic patterns and prevent accidents or congestion on the roadways. The science of surveillance can be used in ways great and small for our benefit.

Surveillance is nothing without intelligence: Agents analyze audio data on “The Wire”

Photo Credit:

Regarding the proverbial Big Brother who is watching us from the skies and is tapped into our communications lines, remember this important point from the hit show, “The Wire” (whose very name is about wiretap surveillance): “All the pieces matter.” Intelligence isn’t simply one step in the process, it should not be confused with the step of surveillance, and all of the pieces in the methodology and all of the players are tantamount.

Yolanda Michelle Hairston

Former television news journalist with more than 20 years of experience in marketing and digital content.

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