Belmont Club

If you build it, they will snoop

The WSJ describes how a doctoral student, working on his own time, put together a dossier on North Korea better than anything in open source, and possibly, better than many classified studies. Curtis Melvin did it by creating a “go to place” for intelligence fusion on North Korea and carefully piecing the puzzle together.

Mr. Melvin is at the center of a dozen or so citizen snoops who have spent the past two years filling in the blanks on the map of one of the world’s most secretive countries. Seeking clues in photos, news reports and eyewitness accounts, they affix labels to North Korean structures and landscapes captured by Google Earth, an online service that stitches satellite pictures into a virtual globe. The result is an annotated North Korea of rocket-launch sites, prison camps and elite palaces on white-sand beaches. … An economist who studies developing countries and has traveled from Turkmenistan to Zimbabwe, Mr. Melvin started his project in early 2007 to designate places he visited on two group tours to North Korea earlier this decade. He shared it on several North Korea-related Web sites. …

People soon started sending him locations they knew, from tourist sites to airfields tucked into valleys near South Korea. Mr. Melvin says that sadness for North Koreans’ plight, and the fascination of discovery, motivated him to continue.

Five years ago, while analyzing the way in which newspapers covered an atrocity story describing an American attack on an Iraqi wedding party, I wrote: “although the news media functions as the civilian intelligence system, collecting raw data, processing it and distributing it to the public, for historical reasons it lacks many of the features which professional intelligence systems have evolved over the years: namely a system of grading information by reliability and existence of analytic cell whose function is to follow the developments and update the results.” More recently, looking at an article in which Wikipedia corrected a hoax story far more quickly than the mainstream press, I observed that:

One of the things that Wikipedia does far better than journalism — apart from having “many eyes” to make its bugs shallow, is that it maintains a lineage of its information. For example, the version history of the entry on Maurice Jarre is shown on this page. By treating edits like a database transaction log (which in fact it is), and thereby tracking inserts, edits and deletes, you can ‘play back’ the evolution of a piece of information just like a movie. You can restore to any point in time. This tremendously powerful feature makes Wikipedia, for all its defects architecturally better than the press. You can not only see the hoax entry come and go, it is possible to see how the Wikipedia editors dealt with it.

The question that jumps out of the Curtis Melvin story is why the New York Times, with the resources it had in its heyday, couldn’t do something as neat as this. Why did late 20th century journalism simply ignore the best practice in the intelligence fields and in information technology and stick to the old architecture with all its obvious defects? In the Sherlock Holmes story The Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes describes the signifance of the dog that didn’t bark in the night.

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

The question of why the newspapers didn’t do it is best left to historians to ponder. Perhaps I was right to say, “one possible reason was that the media did not want to. Newspapers were not in the information business. They were in the narrative business; and in that profession an editor’s chief ambition is to retain the power to keep his tale in the service of whichever great ideology or personal lord he served.” Perhaps Curtis Melvin’s site will evolve into a network of colleagues, who like astronomers, will parcel out North Korea into sectors, according to spectrum and knowledge domain until they discover more about it than perhaps even the Dear Leader knows. Who can say where it will lead: will such efforts continue to flourish or will pressure be exerted to bring the flood of knowledge back within the old bounds? Are we living in the golden age of political discovery that will soon be past or simply waiting on verge of something even greater? Whatever happens next, it’s been a great ride.

What though the radiance
which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass,
of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

Or maybe just find the waterslide in Kim Jon Il’s palace.

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