Belmont Club

The Eye in Being

What do Gorgons, Argus and blimps have in common? They are all names associated with US military efforts to provide persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. The Army is building 3 airships, each of which can stay aloft for three weeks. Each blimp will be longer than a footall field and taller than a seven storey building all designed to support very fancy digital cameras. The are weapons of the most deadly kind, with payloads which deal in information.

One such device is the 1.8 Gigapixel camera that is part of Project Argus. “The camera is composed of four arrays, each containing 92 five-megapixel imagers.” It is capable of taking in — at a single digital glance — 40 square kilometers of area — at a resolution of one pixel for every six square inches. Forty square kilometers is half the area of Manhattan.

Such a massive collection of data of data literally outpaces the ability to deal with it. Argus collects so much information it cannot be downloaded at once nor analyzed rapidly. It is one thing to “see” half of Manhattan at a glance and quite another to understand what is seen. Extracting the significance of street scenes from the City that Never Sleeps would be the work of years. Some way must be found to throw away most of the data that has been so expensively collected. For that reason, the Argus camera will be hooked up to real-time moving indicators that allows the system to call in zoom cameras to examine any event of interest.

The paradox of distilling information from data is that you must cast the net wide for the ore and employ the finest sieve for the precious metal. But first the raw material must be found and similar systems are ready for deployment.

The Air Force’s project Gorgon Stare consists of an imaging system deployed on a Reaper UAV, that will be able to monitor an area 4 kilometers in radius (about 50 square kilometers in area) at 2 frames per second. Part of its original purpose was to track “squirters” — insurgents who ran out of the field of view of tactical, full-motion surveillance assets. By combining Gorgon Stare with traditional, narrow field of view, full motion sensors, they can be tracked even when they they think they are out of the danger area. Because now there is no ‘out of the danger area’.

The Washington Post, reporting on the imminent deployment of Gorgon Stare in Afghanistan quotes Maj. Gen. James O. Poss rebuttal of criticisms that so much data cannot be possibly be analyzed. It doesn’t have to all be analyzed.  Once the data is collected, it sits like a time bomb, a danger to the insurgent should someone come back to revisit it.

The power of Gorgon Stare lies partially in the fact that you cannot know what it is focusing on. Like the naval concept of the “fleet in being” whose menace is conveyed by the fact that it exists; that it could appear anywhere, that it always has to be taken into account, Gorgon Stare imposes on the enemy the knowledge that it has been seen. It only remains to be noticed. Poss said, “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” The next step will obviously be to exploit these massive datasets so they can be utilized “at the speed of war”.

The key it turns out, is harnessing human intelligence. One model that may prove useful in finding the nuggets in this slurry of information is getting people to tag operationally interesting moments in the course of watching “Death TV”.This will  highlight the interesting moments in the humdrum to provide anchor points around which further analysis can be performed.

The Air Force has also taken tips from the purveyors of pop culture. It is working with Harris Corp. to adapt ESPN’s technique of tagging key moments in National Football League videotape to the war zone. Just as a sportscaster can call up a series of archived quarterback blitzes as soon as a player is sacked on the field, an analyst in Afghanistan can retrieve the last month’s worth of bombings in a particular stretch of road with the push of a button, officials said.

The Air Force placed a contractor on the set of a reality TV show to learn how to pick out the interesting scenes shot from cameras simultaneously recording the action in a house. And taking a page from high-tech companies such as Google, the Air Force will store its reams of video on servers placed in used shipping containers in Iowa.

Once these anchor points are identified, then the amount of data that needs to be searched progressively shrinks to the area and events contiguous to it. A chain of scenes can be generated that collectively describe an event. The combination of airborne sensors, data processing and human tagging is creating a value chain of information of enormous potential.There is no conceivable way that an enemy without a command of the commons and without access to huge computing resources can compete.

But its value makes it a vulnerability. First, it makes the US military increasingly dependent on its control not only of air and space, but of the electromagnetic spectrum. Forces on the ground will be sized on the assumption that they enjoy information dominance. Once information dominance is removed, these forces may not be able to survive on their unaugmented organic capabilities. US units are powerful not because of what they carry on their backs but because of what is at their call from regions out of sight.

Second, combat sources dependent on information are vulnerable to information countermeasures. For this vast amount of data must be disseminated to be used; it cannot be hoarded at the center. People have to watch “Death TV”. Its fruits are not going to be useful while locked up in a classified vault and must therefore be accessible at the “speed of war” to relatively many individuals and will, among other things also contain the signature of friendly forces and local assets. Is this a danger? It probably is, if you could ask Julian Assange. He’s probably hoping to get it from a source in exchange for chump change or momentary fame.

In Greek mythology, the Gorgon had power for both healing and destruction. “Blood taken from the right side of a Gorgon could bring the dead back to life, yet blood taken from the left side was an instantly fatal poison.” Like information it was a two-edged force.  You could only fight the Gorgon by operating within its parameters. Perseus slew Medusa by looking at her indirectly in the mirror instead of directly at her, to prevent being turned into stone, thereby enabling him to strike with his sword. In some Hollywood versions, the Gorgon is turned to stone by merely seeing herself in reflection. Information is as dangerous as bladed weapons and explosive powder.

For thousands of years man has simultaneously been attracted to and repelled by knowledge. Like fire it promised light and yet could burn. Today the fire of knowledge animates nearly all the branches of arms. It dominates nearly every aspect of our lives. Information remains our servant for the present, but only while we watch it. Genesis tells the story of humanity’s first encounter with the dangers of knowledge and its twin seeds, good and evil. Like the Gorgon it could heal or destroy. But we’ll never know where it will end, will we, until we poke it and see.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” print edition
Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” Kindle Edition”