2011-12-12 Mosaic theory, universal surveillance and unlimited recordkeeping #SpyFiles

‘“Mosaic theory” describes a basic precept of intelligence gathering: Disparate items of information, though individually of limited or no utility to their possessor, can take on added significance when combined with other items of information.’ [1]

Mosaic theory was what caused intelligence organisations like Australia’s ASIO (Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation) in the mid 20th century to record what seemed like incredibly mundane activities and communications of what were then called ‘persons of interest’. For example, continuous surveillance of the doorway to Sydney’s Communist party headquarters - for decades. What was recorded now tells us more about the changing state of fashion than it ever told us about the (hardly dangerous) activities of those who came and went. But for ASIO, the game was to gather as much as they possibly could. Not only to attempt to build a bigger picture in line with mosaic theory, but more prosaically, to keep themselves in work in the relatively unexciting backwater - in espionage terms - that Australia was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

As we can see now from the ASIO archives, these surveillance activities produced mammoth quantities of records - in the form of telephone conversation recordings and transcripts, photographs, film and copies of press clippings. These were carefully gathered, collated and filed. And then, for the most part, the information sat unloved in the files unless some alert intelligence officer happened to think of some way to link a new discovery to something previously recorded. They simply did not have the tools to analyse the information they had.

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