The unfolding of the information umbrella  10.6.13

“We are the leaders, we can be the information hegemon.” (David Rothkopf)1

Well, who would be surprised that NSA apparently sniffs the hell out of the databases located on data centers on U.S. soil, operated by American companies. The writing has been on the wall for at least fifteen years. Numerous high level persons have said enough for anyone to connect the dots. The strategy is obvious, has always been. It might surely help to discover some terrorists. It also helps to keep your hegemony going smoothly for another while. Informational supremacy supplements US dominance in military affairs, global political institutions, currency and financial markets, and global cultural affairs. It is playing its game very nicely. Accidents happen, but 

An eye-opener was Joseph Nye’s “America’s Information Edge”, co-authored with William Owens and published in Foreign Affairs in March/April 1996.2 While the article focussed on military information systems, it’s blending of military dominance based on superior information system with information-based soft power spurred imaginations of how else information systems can be used to foster a nation’s relative power in global politics. Enter the information umbrella.

“These capabilities [dominant situational knowledge] point to what might be called an information umbrella. Like extended nuclear deterrence, they could form the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship. The United States would provide situational awareness, particularly regarding military matters of interest to other nations. Other nations, because they could share this information about an event or crisis, would be more inclined to work with the United States. … As its capacity to provide this kind of information increases, America will increasingly be viewed as the natural coalition leader, not just because it happens to be the strongest but because it can provide the most important input for good decisions and effective action for other coalition members. Just as nuclear dominance was the key to coalition leadership in the old era, information dominance will be the key in the information age.”

Martin Libicki added more details to the Nye/Owens’ information umbrella strategy in 1998, which should replace the Cold War nuclear strategy. A “system of systems” should be established and other nations should be granted access to parts of in on a quid-pro-quo basis:

“The quid would be access to the System’s services and data, including feeds (e.g., those covering global flashpoints, movement tracks, ambient conditions), indicators (e.g., crime reports in certain categories, sectoral business activity) and monitors (e.g., traffic, pollution, switch activity). The quo would be, in effect, the System’s access to a nation’s spaces (e.g., a very open skies regime) as well as to extant monitors and databases.”3

Libicki’s calculation, elaborated in a section headlined “The System as Strategy”, apparently was that the “system of system” would be so expensiv and complex and yield network effects galore that no other international contender would be able to trump the US-initiated system:

“The United States can be aggressively generous in giving away its information and access to its structure… (…) [T]he underlying economies of scale in fielding sensors or integrating systems to illuminate the world may yield results similar to what global markets are achieving.”

Giving first shots away for free to first attract users, creating dependencies, increasing value by network effects, and thus raising exit costs over time has been an essential feature of the drug lords and ICT industry ever since. Rephrasing Max Boot on the art of leading an empire (I don’t have the source here right now, hence no cite): To ensure it’s very survival, an empire needs to dry up dangerous competencies of potential rivals. With the creation of an information umbrella, the US establishes itself as global security provider. It’s services can be enjoyed by other nations as long as they relinquish parts of their national sovereignty in security matters to the imperial security system.

And then came that series of events that “represents a failure of intelligence, law enforcement, information management – and technology.”4 With technology the cause, technology was the cure. The Markle Foundation Task Force, a joint working group by Markle Foundation, Brookings Institue and CSIS, was the most comprehensive attempt to contemplate about the use of IT against terrorism in a think tank environment. The goal the task force set itself: “Exploiting America’s IT Advantage.”5 The task force suggested to build an organisational and technical network, in which intelligence agencies, law enforcement, local, state, and federal bureaucracies, the military, and private enterprises would share all that data and information that could potentially be valuable to detect future terrorist attacks. The potential data sources for the envisaged “Systemwide Homeland Analysis and Resource Exchange Network” (SHARE) were countless:

„[I]mportant information or analytical ability resides not just in the 14 intelligence components of the federal government and federal law enforcement and security agencies, but also with the 17,784 state and local law enforcement agencies, 30,020 fire departments, 5,801 hospitals and the millions of first responders who are on the frontlines of the homeland security effort. Add to this the thousands of private owners and operators of critical infrastructures, who are responsible for protecting potential targets of terrorist attacks, and the many more private companies that may have information in their databases that could lead to the prevention of terrorist activity.”6

The range of information objects that were deemed relevant is no less impressive: It starts with details on „birth, deaths, and marriages“ printed on marriage, birth, death, and divorce certificates (collected by VitalCheck), continues to the categorie „Internet“ with information objects like „file postings“ und „website search history“ (collected by ISPs such as AOL, MSN, Yahoo, CompuServe, EarthLink or search engine providers such as Google, Altavista, MapQuest, and Ebay), to the category „lifestyle interest“ with information objects such as „cable-viewing history“, „product activation“, or „Internet opt-in news sources“, and finally concludes with the category „work force“ mit information objects such as names of persons working on bridgeds, dams, and harbours.

That’s what an illustrious circle from US think tanks, IT industry, academia, intelligence, and media such as James Lewis (CSIS), Craig Mundie (Microsoft), Ashton Carter (then Harvard U, now Dep MoD), Esther Dyson, Amitai Etzioni (old hand thinker who drafted Kennedy’s gradualism and, more recently, the idea of a Global Safety Authority), David J. Farber (Carnegie Mellon U), James Dempsey (CDT), Eric Holder (then Covington & Burling, now Attorney General), Gilman Louie (In-Q-Tel), and Winston Wiley (Booz Allen Hamilton, the company with that by now presumably former employee), to only name a few, came up with in 2002/2003. The idea of IT as a panacea to the ill of terrorism was formed in those months a good ten years ago. Given the way how European authorities and legislations continue to feed the deep data throat on the other side of the pond, the counter-terrorism strategy has been successfully merged with the foreign policy strategy of the information umbrella. 

  1. David Rothkopf, then Visiting Fellow at Carnegie, CEO of Intellibridge, formerly at Kissinger Associates, quoted in: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2000). “Cyberpolitik: The Information Revolution and U.S. Foreign Policy.” 22.03.2000. URL: (04.05.2004) ↩

  2. Nye, Joseph S., und William A. Owens (1996). “America’s Information Edge.” In: Foreign Affairs 2 (March/April 1996). S. 20-36. URL: ↩

  3. Libicki, Martin (1998). “Information War, Information Peace.” In: Journal of International Affairs 2 (Spring 1998). S. 411-428. ↩

  4. Ham, Shane (2002). “Winning with Technology.” In: Blueprint Magazine (16.01.2002). URL: =250038 (19.05.2004). ↩

  5. Markle Foundation – Task Force on National Security in the Information Age (2002). “Protecting America’s Freedom in the Information Age. Second Report of the Markle Foundation Task Force.” Zoë Baird, James Barksdale Chairmen, Michael A. Vatis Executive Director. October 2002. URL: (19.05.2004). ↩

  6. Markle Foundation – Task Force on National Security in the Information Age (2003). “Creating a Trusted Network for Homeland Security. Second Report of the Markle Foundation Task Force.” Zoë Baird, James Barksdale Chairmen, Michael A. Vatis Executive Director. December 2003. URL: (19.05.2004). ↩

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