How do we define ‘information advantage’? For many in the defence and security establishment, the term has become ‘fuzzy’. But it remains a vital concept for an effective, integrated security strategy; and it goes far beyond the battlefield.

Information advantage isn’t one killer moment – a piece of intelligence that forewarns us of an event, or helps us overcome a tactical disadvantage. It’s a process, a way to draw together data, develop new lines of enquiry – and then act decisively. It allows us to focus our efforts, prioritise high risk situations and develop insights into new threats.

The intersections between military, political, social, technological and even cultural and environmental factors have become central to our own postures, too. Information advantage across these domains is valuable to military, border security, police, and civil agencies alike.

For the frontline military it’s still about accumulating more information on our enemy than they have about us. But for officials within the MoD charged with long-term strategic planning, ‘information advantage’ means better insights from across the armed forces and intelligence communities, analysed in good time, to drive decisions that will inform the UK’s defence apparatus for years to come.

Breaking down silos

Every organisation faces the problem of siloed systems and decision-making. But in bodies where security is paramount, it’s harder to create the kind of information flow that gives commercial entities, for example, their own information advantages.

At the highest strategic levels – around policymaking, say – sharing already happens. At the incident level, we also see agencies coming together to develop and exploit an information advantage for tactical ends. The recent Isle of Wight tanker seizure was a great example.

But between these two extremes it’s more difficult to engineer and exploit an information advantage. At that level it’s about developing new insights into emergent threats, and the best ways to counter them. And it’s here that a silo mentality is most damaging.

Border security is a good example. At a superficial level, it’s about checking documentation at ports and intercepting attempted illegal entry. But it helps to know why people are attempting to get into the country under false pretences; where people smugglers are operating; which trouble spots might create refugees; how organised crime gangs plan their operations; and so on.

The nature of threats like that are picked up through a variety of channels – government departments, security agencies, deployed military, or police assets training overseas, among others. Information advantage is secured when we can pull together those sources, use that data, to triangulate unseen threats – and head them off.

In search of a platform?

In the commercial world, developing and exploiting information advantage often comes down to the creation of platforms. Amazon or Google can be proactive and profitable thanks to the way they collect and analyse data from lots of different sources – all running through one platform.

But in a security context, there needs to be an extra layer of clarity on who sees what, why, where and when. You can’t simply post intelligence to a ‘national security social network’. Yet the objective remains to turn data into information; and information into insight – enabling more proactive decision-making.

‘Insight advantage’ also helps counter ‘phase zero’ operations, where organised crime, terrorist groups or state actors seek to undermine the fabric of society via novel vectors such as social media or digital infrastructure. These new threats often fall into the gaps between traditional military and civilian intelligence gathering silos. So while a platform model might not be the perfect analogy, some way of taking a more holistic view of information would be invaluable.

Creating information networks

However, a single-department, three-year procurement project to build a new ‘insight platform’ is not ideal in the 21st century. The threat actors work too fast. Is there another model for how we can deliver at a more holistic view?

It’s happened in other areas. Leidos’ logistics division created centralised hubs for multi-service procurement and distribution, reducing MoD over-ordering, increasing control and cost efficiencies. Data analysis sits at the heart of that. We have also created platforms for multi-function electronic warfare (MFEW). The same technology used in battlefield scenarios to manipulate and intercept enemy communication can be applied to create information advantage for special ops units during highly focused missions and even civilian agencies mounting operations against organised crime and terrorism.

The lesson is that delivering results is the key to ensuring buy-in. If we can create a coherent view of the vast amounts of data systems like these can gather, what threats they’re showing us – and respond quickly – a more holistic view of information advantage will prove sustainable. We need the right people to be able to see a picture emerging from a mosaic of information, so they can act decisively to nullify threats and tip the balance in our favour.

Information advantage is no longer just about ‘what’s on the other side of the hill’. It’s how our whole future might evolve. But upping the stakes for gathering, sharing and exploiting information across civil and military domains also brings risks. How we manage the oversight of that process – and guarantee both the security of our information gathering channels as well as civil liberties, for example – will be the subject of our next blog.

Next time…

“Just because we can, does that mean we should?”

If we’re gathering and sharing more insights to maintain an information advantage, what does oversight on such a system look like? How should the representatives of the people look at data collection, use, analysis and application? How do we justify the methods to attain that advantage? Or the validity of the approaches to merging data to create it?

Parliament clearly has a role in creating the parameters and realms in which we might apply information advantage through policy choices and executive orders. But the extent to which we can attain information advantage also shapes which policies or orders might be considered viable or valuable. So where does that balance lie in the 21st century? And how can we ensure there is enough clarity around the tools and relationships generating information advantage to ensure they’re properly regulated?

Article written by Al Potter, Vice President and Managing Director, National Security and Defence, Leidos UK.