Social Networks and Saddam Hussein: A Private Matter?

Chris Wilson writes on how social networks caught Saddam Hussein; whould we be using Internet technology to catch all criminals?

I have been thoroughly enjoying Chris Wilson’s five-part Slate series on how social networking, not hierarchical flow charts, helped the United States military capture Saddam Hussein in 2003:

Russell’s files reveal why it was essential to think of the insurgency as a social network, not an organization. Power was decentralized. And since the primary motive of any insurgent is not to be captured, information has to be decentralized as well. Many people I interviewed referenced the resistance movement in Algeria, as recounted in the movie The Battle of Algiers. Members of the National Liberation Front were each supposedly aware of only three other members: the person who recruited them and the two people they recruited—essentially, a terrorist version of a chain letter. In the movie, there is a memorable scene in which the French officers assemble a tree diagram of the NLF’s network, filling in names in the hope of sketching a path back to the leaders.

The insurgent network in Tikrit was not so rigidly organized, but it was similarly fragile. As Brian Reed would later calculate in his Ph.D dissertation, Saddam’s network had very low density, a measure of how “knitted” or interconnected the players are. …

For Russell and his men, this lack of connections was no academic musing. To develop a plan of attack, they needed to know all the different ways that two connected people (known as a dyad) were hooked together through intermediates (the jargony term for this is “dyadic redundancy”). If someone’s ties are redundant, the network can quickly recover from his loss. If someone’s ties are unique, then they are irreplaceable. This was the case with the National Liberation Front in Algiers, where the dyadic redundancy was basically zero—if an NLF rebel was killed, his mental Rolodex would go with him. In Iraq, the redundancy was almost as low. That meant that finding Saddam would require precisely the right path. Since very few people were thought to know where the dictator was at any given moment, killing them—or severing links to them—could set the hunt back months.

The suspenseful, well-written story is provocative—especially when it comes to future applications of social networking theories in the fight to keep America safe. Could we have caught the Mumbai bombers by following a chain of cousins? What if Malik Nidal Hassan was an avid Twitter user? What about Najibullah Zazi, who recently plead guilty to a plot to bomb New York City—or lone crazies like the man who flew his plane into the IRS?

There are huge upsides to 21st century interconnectivity. Hussein’s capture is one. Monitoring protests in Iran and survivors in Haiti are others. Certainly Scott Roeder, who killed Dr. George Tiller in June, was wired into an observable social network of anti-abortion demagogues, linked by the internet and spurred by a major cable news network. But Amy Bishop, the woman who allegedly shot down six colleagues at the University of Alabama, had a history of violence known only to those who had known her longest. And the authorities didn’t have to look very hard for alleged plane bomber Umar Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab’s social web: His father walked into an embassy with details.

What’s more, the potential to track bad guys via their personal connections raises a host of important concerns about privacy. The recent stink about Google Buzz making pubic all frequent email contacts seems too little, too late. Google knows all this information, anyway—including what individuals are searching for online, and, if they are using the calendar and map applications, where they’ll be, and when. To a different but no less pernicious extent, so does Facebook.

Certainly the debate on telecom immunity surrounding revelations of Bush-era surveillance of unsuspecting citizens started the conversation on what’s rightfully ours in the digital age. I haven’t since seen any real investigation into the role that private companies (aside from the mercenary groups like DynCorps and Blackwater already doing our dirty business) will play in the search for better and more intelligence to protect lives.

A robust discussion of these ideas is set to take place with the New America Foundation later this week. Primarily, the Slate series is reminding me of David Simon’s epic HBO show, The Wire. Go back and watch season one, episode one: