I normally stick to facts alone. I can’t do that today because I owe an apology.
We know that Russia hacked the democratic processes in the UK and US and that they failed to do the same again in France. We know that the criminal organisation of Putin’s Federation, backed by state machinery, hacked and traded data through its deniable and detached assets – including Wikileaks and far-right figures such as Nigel Farage.
We know they harnessed the power of the dark money of sympathetic oligarchs to power big data operations and digital disinformation campaigns which ranged from trolls and sock puppets to alternative media outlets like Breitbart.
We also know that the availability of big data and profiling through the use of social media has been seen as a weapon for many years – as far back as the days of HB Gary teaming up with Palantir in 2010.
These are things we know and have known for several months. But what is the true context of the use of information? How much power does it really have?
The time has arrived for me to come clean with you.
I’ve known all along that big data is a powerful weapon in the wrong hands and the reason I was so quick to dive into this web and untangle it is simple: I’ve used it myself.
I know only too well what you can do with information.
“I’ve known all along that big data is a powerful weapon in the wrong hands…I’ve used it myself”
Back in 2004, I joined the police, completing my basic training at Ryton before being posted to Peartree Police Station, covering a run down and often dangerous patch just outside Derby’s city centre. Without information, policing the streets was impossible.
Every shift would start with a briefing, outlining our priority crimes, patrol areas, suspects and nominals. The intelligence, crime system, photograph database and Police National Computer would all be used in the preparation of these briefings, delivered electronically. Behind that briefing sat a host of local and divisional analysis utilising all of the different systems available, expanding over time to include ANPR and other facilities, adding third party information from multi-agency partnerships.
This is big data, profiling criminals and victims and using it to create tasking from which reactive and planned resource initiatives were directed to deliver arrests, patrols, warrants, and other interventions. The data was our biggest weapon in the fight against crime.
In 2006, I moved from response policing to the Intelligence Unit, where I started to use the same big data to combat complex drugs operations, handling networks, and organised crime, often stepping over the regional borders.
The information at my fingertips was immense and helped me fight crack dealers, networks of cannabis grow-houses, cross-border robberies, and gang crime – even using social media to obtain warrants for gang members posting pictures of themselves with guns.
I had access to drug market mapping, phone records, surveillance technology, human intelligence sources. My dataset had expanded exponentially.
By 2012 I had transferred to the Met and used the datasets available to me to design a model which could effectively predict crime – use all of these datasets to map offences, predict where the next crimes would occur, and target not only the likely suspects based on their location and offending profiles but also identify the people who handled their stolen goods and the others sold them the drugs after the cash had changed hands.
I was predictively modelling human behaviour based on known variables identifiable through big data.
By 2013 I was so proficient in the use of data and social media as a weapon, I took on Scotland Yard over their wholesale manipulation of the crime figures and won my battle in Parliament, changing the crime recording system across the country on a permanent basis.
Then I retired.
What I knew when I left was this: with enough information, you have unlimited power to do good.
I also knew the opposite was true. With the same information, you could do infinite wrong.
This is what happened with Russia and its complex network of assets and associates. This is how they won. They amassed a huge dataset, the largest ever created, and deployed it to create disinformation briefings, to create responses.
Together, they steered public debate, predicted moves and counter-moves. They profiled every voting member of the public and delivered not only votes but the absence of votes. They did the infinite wrong.
In many ways, I owe you all an apology for retiring. But I’m not retired anymore. And the one thing we now have is the start of the dataset we can use to start fighting back. With enough information, used in the right way, we still have the power to do infinite good.
The one prediction I can make, having learned everything I can for the last year through the observation of people, is that the will to do just this exists. And where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“with enough information, you have unlimited power to do good.”