Crowdsourcing the Law

by wjw on March 2, 2012

Remember that scene in Fahrenheit 451 when Montag is on the run, and the announcer on television talks to his “friends” (in Bradbury’s future, television has friended the entire audience), and the announcer tells the friends to go outside and look for the fugitive?

In the François Truffaut film, this scene was particularly chilling, with whole streets of zombielike couch potatoes stepping outside onto their perfectly manicured lawns to look for the man whose crime was reading Charles Dickens.

Now the State Department is trying to bring that scene to reality.

Our friends at Foggy Bottom have created the Tag Challenge, in which citizens will be rewarded with thousands of dollars for finding “fugitives” in certain cities.  The State Department will provide a mugshot and a general location, and citizen entrepreneurs the rest.

Will one of the bad guys be named Montag?  I hope so.

The manhunters will have to create ad hoc organized groups in order to search for the fugitives, and they’ll have only twelve hours to do it.

This follows DARPA’s balloon challenge, in which teams were encouraged to report the locations of ten red weather balloons scattered across the United States.  (This challenge was won by a team from MIT, some of whom are now employed in Afghanistan using similar methods to locate terrorists.)

All this is clever, actually.  They’re trying to crowdsource intelligence gathering, which is cheaper than sending up satellites or training and placing agents.  They’re letting human greed work for them.  Plus, they’re not employing Bradbury’s couch potatoes, but people who are smart, ambitious, and wired— exactly the sort of people they’re trying to recruit anyway.

Other countries have been doing this stuff for years.   China has legions of highly organized hackers doing their bidding, and Russia has used freelance hackers to attack, among other places, Estonia and Georgia.

There is something diabolically simple about dandling a cash reward out the window, and saying “We’ll give $50,000 to the first person or team who can provide the text of the meeting between the foreign minister of Lower Slobbovia and the president of Trashcanistan.”  And then they give $25,000 to the second person, because the first person might have just forged the whole document.

It’s certainly cheaper than maintaining a massive, expensive brick-and-mortar intelligence agencies like CIA.

And of course there’s danger of blowback.  Once you’ve created a highly intelligent, highly deniable, mercenary Internet cannibal swarm— your very own private Anonymous— who’s to say it won’t turn on you if someone offers it a suitable reward?

And who’s to say that— as in the Bradbury novel— it won’t be used to punish dissent?

Now what the State Department actually needs here is to cast a wider net .  Jewel thieves being present in five cities for twelve hours will attract only a certain class of competitor, but what will attract the rest is a story.  A story that features intelligence gathering, steganography, making and breaking codes and ciphers, covert actions in far-off locations, and a big party at the end so that the players can be recruited.

What the State Department needs is an ARG like those created by Dagmar in This Is Not a Game.

In short, the State Department needs me.

You can find me wearing a porkpie hat, standing by the public phones at the bus station, and carrying a late edition of the day’s newspaper.  Ask me if I’m the one who wanted the double-shot vanilla latte.  I’ll say I wanted the cappucino.  And we’ll go on from there.

Philip Brewer March 3, 2012 at 12:00 am

Which bus station?

Urban March 3, 2012 at 7:00 am

Interesting locations; I suppose “Stockholm” isn’t one of the small places in USA but here in Sweden. (Real website isn’t available so I only have second hand information.) Three large and two small cities, the smallest where four countries meet and the second smallest in one of the countries with the highest Internet and mobile phone penetration and a bit remote for all but the most serious non-local gamers.

DensityDuck March 3, 2012 at 8:24 am

Isn’t this what the Ten Most Wanted list already does, and has been doing for years?

wjw March 3, 2012 at 9:21 pm

DD– the difference between this and the Ten Most Wanted is the difference between wanted posters at the Post Office and dangling cash money in front of a whole bunch of smart, competitive, self-activated, highly networked nerds.

The best comparison isn’t to the Most Wanted list, but maybe to America’s Most Wanted, which got the data into millions of households every week.

TRX March 5, 2012 at 3:41 am

The problem is that there are more people than faces. In my own case, there’s a guy who looks enough like me that casual acquaintances might confuse us. And to top it off, we have the same name, (middle name is different, but same initial) and were born in the same city the same year and month . I found him while doing a web search on my own name, and for a moment even I was confused.

That’s not that bad… what’s bad is I have a near-clone. We have vastly different ethnic/racial backgrounds, but we’re similar enough that close friends can’t tell the difference between a picture of me and a picture of Hassan Nasrullah, head of the Hezbollah.

Back in the 1990s there were posts in the comp.risks newsgroup about the Fed putting cameras and facial recognition software in some airports and bus stations. I’m sure the state of the art has moved along since then. All I need is for a bunch of Homeland Security to freak out and jump me when their computer kicks out a false positive. And of course, you don’t need a computer to do the work – even a Post Office “Most Wanted” grade picture would lead a human to think Hassan Nasrullah and I were the same person.

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