iTunes and Intelligence

What spies can learn from the music business.

In 1999, the Billboard Hot 100 placed the following artists at the top of the charts for the year: Cher, whose comeback album "Believe" had debuted in late 1998; TLC, the female hip-hop trio; Monica, a solo R&B artist; Whitney Houston; and Britney Spears, whose hit "Baby One More Time" propelled the 17-year-old former Mouseketeer to global stardom.

Here's where those pop stars, all of whom were produced by big record companies, stand today. Houston has failed drug rehab twice and hasn't released a studio album in four years. TLC dissolved following the death of one of its members in 2002. Monica, despite winning a Grammy, hasn't consistently produced hits. (Her latest, "Sideline Ho," peaked at 45 on Billboard this year.) And Spears set a new standard for career meltdowns when she flubbed the opening number at the MTV Video Music Awards in September. Of the five, only Cher has managed to end on top, following a popular tour in 2005 that, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, was the highest grossing by a female artist.

One obvious lesson here is that landing high on the Billboard charts is no guarantee of continued success. In fact, if 1999 is typical, it seems to be a better indicator of which acts will eventually fizzle. In any case, as an intelligence tool, the charts are seriously limited.

Now, that same year, the music-file sharing system Napster first appeared online. Soon, artists who didn't have big U.S. recording contracts and much radio play-and so didn't top Billboard-gained popularity as computer users swapped their favorite tracks instead of buying them. The charts were still dominated by mainstream acts, but lesser-known bands, such as the British rock quintet Radiohead, surged upward. Napster shut down in 2001, following copyright infringement lawsuits, but it paved the way for the hugely successful iTunes service from Apple Inc. The company revolutionized the sale of music by selling individual songs. iTunes has allowed more artists to reach millions of listeners independently of the big record companies, something they could scarcely have imagined in 1999.

There's an important lesson here for the intelligence community, which, like the record companies, has had mixed success predicting the future. Following high-profile intelligence failures (Sept. 11, the Iraq WMD debacle), senior officials are betting social networking and collaboration technologies like Napster and iTunes will lead to better analysis. Last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence launched Intellipedia, modeled after the online reference tool Wikipedia, which lets analysts build on each other's work. Later this year, ODNI will open A-Space, a social networking site that mimics MySpace and Facebook-staples of the Gen Y set-so analysts can establish information-sharing outside bureaucratic boundaries.

Mike Wertheimer, the ODNI official in charge of these efforts, says music-sharing history is instructive. "In the past, [music] was selected and filtered by executives," he says. Similarly in the intelligence community, managers filtered information, obtained from protected sources, up through a chain until executives at the highest level decided what got stamped official and disseminated to customers, Wertheimer says. Collaborative tools bypass official processes and might even undermine them. The result? In the music business, more diverse work is being created, he says.

Wertheimer argues that his research and that of others shows that the more sets of eyes focused on a piece of intelligence, the stronger the analysis. There's no proof for this, yet. But he wonders whether the music experience doesn't bode well for the future. "This new model, has it made music worse?" he asks. "The breadth of what you can listen to is remarkably higher. Will this lead to better music? I can't believe that it will not."

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

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