Lexicography (or, Not All Publics is Created Equal)

The Intelligence Community has a language all its own, as any reasonably insular, reasonably technically-inclined community does. Yet the IC is, if not unique, then at least unusual in that it invents little of its own language; rather, it adopts words and phrases from other fields of study. It’s easy to be cynical, and say this is because the intelligence community doesn’t really “invent” anything, but that’s not really true. I think the problem is more that the IC doesn’t communicate very well, and so you have “parallel evolution”, where the same idea gets invented, independently, by two or more (people|groups|organizations) at roughly similar times. Being – of course – aware of this shortcoming (yet doing little, except on paper, to rectify it), the people who do come up with new ideas don’t give them clever names. (Or maybe they do: there could be something called a “Jones Analysis” out there, but that whole lack-of-communication thing means I, and most other people, have never heard of it.)

There’s a downside to this, though: Words have meanings. Inventing things out of whole cloth (the “Jones Analysis”, for example) means that nobody is going to come at things with preconceived notions of what it’s all about. It also ensures that names don’t change, evolve, or mutate: if there were a “Jones Analysis”, people wouldn’t one day start calling it the “Jerome Analysis”… at least, not on purpose.

What’s the point of this? Well, in intelligence work, the idea of “all sources” has been around, basically, forever. Likewise, the idea of “public sources” has probably been around, oh, about thirty seconds less than that of “all sources”. In recent years, though, the IC has started dropping the term “public source” in favor of “open source”. This was a natural move, because the flip-side of “public source” has for some time been referred to, at least in some circles, as “closed source”. However, in the interim, “open source” gained quite a degree of prominence due to the term’s use in the computer and software fields.

A lot of people – especially, but not limited to, younger folks – equate “open source” with “free”, which isn’t particularly problematic. A lot, though, associate it with “copyright free” or “public domain”, which is a problem. The issue here is that these terms are not synonymous – especially not in an era of countless “Creative Commons” licenses, the endless variations on the “BSD license”, and so on.

The various terms are not interchangeable, but they often get used that way. I’ve seen at least two recent intelligence reports which referred to “public domain reporting”. I don’t know for sure, but I really hope the author or authors meant “open source reporting” or “public news reports”, or something along those lines. “Public domain” reporting, taken literally, means things like Wikipedia, Wikinews, and a handful of other sources who don’t (or can’t) copyright their output. (One example would be the Voice of America, the U.S. government’s official foreign propaganda arm, which – it need hardly be pointed out – is not a particularly trustworthy, objective source of information.) Obviously, such literally “public domain reporting” is incredibly limited, unlike “open source reporting”. In a field where one is expected to say what one means, mean what one says, and resist from making assumptions or inferences from what one’s fellows have written, at worst such a blunder destroys the credibility of the following analysis. At best, it merely casts the whole report into doubt: if Bob the Analyst doesn’t know the difference between “public” and “public domain”, what else in this report is he confused about? The distinction between “cows” and “cattle”? Other small yet very important details?)

Don’t get me wrong; language is a living thing that constantly evolves, and that’s an undoubtedly good thing. But not all change is good, especially when it introduces confusion. (I keep seeing and hearing people refer to “pen registers” as “pin registers”, presumably because they don’t know the origin of the former. While native English speakers can usually figure out the meaning from context, others are probably perplexed, since “pin register” is already a quite widespread, if technical, term.) I realize that the IC can never endorse a policy of naming things after their inventors – it’s hard to talk about the “(C)[redacted (b)(6)] Principle” when you can’t, or won’t, publicly admit that [redacted (b)(6)] worked for [redacted (b)(1)] in the first place (A little FOIA humor there, sorry) – but if you’re going to give things names, either rigorously and religiously stick to one name, or make sure whatever name you change to doesn’t add confusion. “Joint Limited-Scope Ocular Analysis of Unrestricted Visual Multimedia Resources” is a painfully awful name to hang on a process – but calling it “public domain analysis” isn’t, when all is said and done, all that much better.

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on October 15th, 2008| No Comments »

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