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.

With the SpyFiles release we have seen the universal surveillance state that we now live in. No longer are spying activities limited to ‘persons of interest’; we are all persons of interest. Technology has allowed State and corporate actors to implement mosaic theory on a scale never dreamt of by the spies of the Cold War. Whole countries’ communications are tracked and recorded, and the data is stored so that it can be mined for random mentions of key words which, when matched with perhaps an email, a tweet or a mobile phone call, will set off an alarm bell. Some people will say this is a sacrifice to our civil liberties that we must accept if we are to be safe. However the gradual acceptance of this scattergun approach to the collection of intelligence - about all citizens - has had other effects beyond breaches of our privacy and a gradual erosion of our civil liberties. Requests for access to government information under Freedom of Information laws are rejected not because of intrinsic sensitivities in the information but because it may form part of a jigsaw of evidence against someone at some unspecified point in the future. The same assertions based on mosaic theory are made in many jurisidictions in relation to the determination of access to archival records. So the end result is that not only are we subjected to universal, secretive and intrusive surveillance, but the data is matched with multiple other sources, kept forever, and we are not allowed access to it.

Mosaic: From AEJHarrison's photostream http://www.flickr.com/photos/28385889@N07/

What David E Pozen termed ‘adversarial mosaic-making and informational paranoia’ in a 2005 article in the Yale Law Journal is just one of the many aspects of the state of universal surveillance we live in that has been highlighted in the grotesque sales pitches and prospectuses of the #SpyFiles. It is easier than ever before for repressive regimes, companies and our government here in Australia to establish the mechanisms necessary to create a digital archive on any of us to be used for unknown purposes in the future. Information paranoia indeed.


[1] David E Pozen ‘The Mosaic Theory, National Security, and the Freedom of Information Act’, Yale Law Journal, 115:628, 2005, p 630.


Peter Grier, ‘Washington Post series: How many security secrets did it spill?’ Christian Science Monitor, July 21 2010 http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2010/0721/Washington-Post-se...?

Kate Horowitz, ‘Uncover Australia’s secret history’, Crikey, June 20, 2011 http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/06/20/daily-proposition-uncover-australias...

David E Pozen ‘The Mosaic Theory, National Security, and the Freedom of Information Act’, Yale Law Journal, 115:628, 2005 http://www.yalelawjournal.org/pdf/115-3/Pozen.pdf

WikiLeaks, The SpyFiles http://wikileaks.org/The-Spyfiles

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