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Intelligence as a public good offers huge gains

OPINION
By XN Iraki | May 9th 2021
XN Iraki, an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

Intelligence is one of the scarce resources - in the private and public sectors. It is also scarce, going by the percentage of the population who are genius or near-genius based on Intelligence Quotient (IQ).

Paradoxically, information becomes intelligence because of its scarcity. Simply put, intelligence is valuable information available to only a selected few.

The value emanates from its use in making critical decisions. When information becomes known to everyone, it ceases to be intelligent.

Companies and security services - add underground players like gangsters or terrorists - safeguard their intelligence, at times with the threat of death.

In government, threats and laws do the same as the secrets oath. Intelligence analysis is an area academics have shied away from despite its economic importance.

Academics abhor secrecy which goes with national intelligence. We can argue that academics obsession with sharing every idea with everyone keeps them away from wealth. Firms and countries pour lots of cash into research and development (R&D) hoping to spawn innovations and convert them into products and services.

The success of such innovations to a large extent depends on how well they keep their valuable information or intelligence.

The decisions on where to focus R&D at the firm and national level is derived from intelligence. What new products and services are other firms and countries developing?

The US would want to know which weapons Russia or its competitors are developing. It can then match them or do even better.

The same applies to firms. Nothing would be more devastating than developing a product or service that competitors have.

If you are not ready to commercialise an idea, protect it through patents or keep it a secret. Intelligence goes beyond the product or services to markets, regulations, national thinking and mundane things like our food tastes.

It is one of the key focus of Artificial Intelligence (AI). One reason Africa lags is that we are an open book. Other countries know a lot about us. We know little about them beyond rumours, movies or what we read in fiction books. Besides, we are less travelled and prefer to be superficial.

For example; most Kenyans see beautiful Ethiopian women but not the 100 million people market.

Phone conversation

If intelligence, (intel) is key, where do we get it from and how do we add value to it? Technology is one source. Who is likely to tap your phone conversation or follow your movement remotely?

That is why gangsters and terrorists avoid phones or the internet which can betray their location.

Satellite imagery has taken intel gathering to another level. Noted how countries launch satellites with missions unspecified?

Check satellites cross-crossing the sky at night. Intelligence can’t detach itself from old ways, using naked eyes. Observation is one of the best sources of intelligence. Ever wondered how they pick you from an airport for further search?

In war and espionage, planting real human beings is likely to outcompete technology. That is why States spend millions training such agents. For firms, they can lure the best brains or buy out the firm.

Quality is key in intel than quantity. This makes intel expensive. We only get quality after analysis that can either be cross-sectional, done at once across countries, sectors or longitudinal, done over time.

In both cases, you analyse data by looking at trends and patterns.

Two people can derive different intel from the same information or data. It depends on the depth of analysis, the tool used e.g. supercomputers, experience and their natural intelligence! Do our spy agencies attract the best brains?

What tools are they provided with? That is possibly a secret. In academia, new ideas are publicised so that others can improve on them.

Intelligence is often shared with only a few people which makes it hard to improve. It also suffers from monopoly. Though we have counter-intelligence, intelligence gathering, analysis and use is often a State monopoly that suffers from all the weakness of any monopoly.

In the private sector, the same applies. The fear of leakage means we can’t know the true value of intelligence we hold.

Intel disobeys the laws of economics; supply and demand. The suppliers are also the demanders! Intel does not benefit from network effects. We benefit from joining Safaricom or Facebook because most of our friends or relatives are there. Intelligence agencies are closed shops; we don’t even know the key players.

The biggest problem with intelligence is testing. Simulation is not enough. It’s only after a crisis that the value of intel is got, often after the damage like September 11, 2001.

The private sector can test their intelligence easily by the success of the product or service in the market. We can enhance the value of intel by paying for it. We can even offer rewards. I have avoided words like spying, eavesdropping and espionage. How did the Soviets get the nuclear bomb?

How much intelligence goes into trade pacts, sanctions, technology controls, and lately elections? What we can’t dispute is that intelligence runs the world and its affairs. Do you recall applying for an ID card, visa, passport or census form? Ever wondered where all that data goes? Remember Cambridge Analytica? Intelligence is everywhere. The problem is extracting value from it.

AI is solving that. We have done well on the political part of national intelligence, but not on the economic front. Would I get intel from our spy agency if I want to start a business in country X?

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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