In general, the SIGINT industry is a little like the glass half-empty or half full argument. Many people are made anxious by its capabilities, while others marvel at its ability to potentially save lives.
No matter how full your SIGINT glass, it’s important to remember water molds to the shape of its glass.
If you step back and think about it, once mankind figured out how to communicate with one another, there's been a need for someone (or something) to make sense of the information—or as we engineers like to call it, gather intelligence.
Over the centuries, we've advanced the way we communicate, or transmit, our messages. Initially through simple voices, then utilizing signals such as smoke or drums, then with written words on papyrus and eventually paper, to the electronic devices of present-day.
Of course as communications increased over the years, the need to intercept these messages grew in demand as well. Warring tribes needed to know about potential attacks. Greek generals vied to learn of weaknesses in their enemy's defenses. .
The number of messages sent wirelessly is nearly unlimited, which makes intercepting messages, or intercepting that one useful message, feel more like finding your dropped contact lens on light colored carpet.
Wireless communication is all around us. You likely woke up this morning to check messages on your smartphone, or quite possibly, are reading this article on one right now. All of those little bits of data are wirelessly transmitting to your device from every which direction.
Wireless transmitting of messages has made a huge splash in all industries, but it is specifically important for military uses. As an expert once said when asked about what would have changed the course of conflict of the American Civil War: “Forget machine guns. One set of walkie talkies would have changed the entire war.”
And on the flipside, understanding what an adversary is up to could be the difference between life and death in some missions—so being able to receive and interpret messages quickly is essential.
In most cases, SIGINT, or Signal Intelligence, is the tool of choice to help commanders retrieve the critical information they need. Yet as one can imagine, SIGINT is a never-ending game where the rules are always changing. Imagine signal intelligence as a game of cat and mouse, where one tries to outsmart the other constantly.
A radio is innately designed with necessary precautions to prevent eavesdropping, so SIGINT systems must constantly be developed to work around such walls to allow for a glimpse into the conversation. As soon as the other side knows its messages have been compromised, a new way to transmit messages is provided. The cycle continues on a loop.
Think back to efforts of WWII when the US cracked the Japanese or German crypto codes – the most challenging aspect wasn’t necessarily the cracking of the code in the first place (of course, that alone was an incredible feat), but rather the necessary precautions that had to be taken as to not alert the other side that the code was cracked in the first place.
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If the Axis Forces would have even suspected that their precious code was cracked, they would have automatically changed it, and the game would have started anew.
Take it to present day and it may surprise you how many more common-day applications to signal intelligence have quickly emerged in the last ten years. With the growing diversity of communication (think cell phones, radios, walkie talkies, burner cell phones, land lines etc.), more channels are being used for nefarious purposes in the civilian world as well.
Drug smugglers are just one example of groups who rely on "undetectable" forms of communications. Yet with the help of SIGINT, authorities are giving crooks a run for their money.
Use Port Security, for example – many times, illegal shipments come into the nation's ports without being detected. Employing SIGINT technology to intercept these communications may work fast enough to catch the smugglers before they can offload their cargo.
While the beauty of communication's advances is that it connects people from around the world, this in itself poses new hurdles for "the power of good" to keep disaster from striking. In one of the most impressive feats, a group of hackers cut power to more than 80,000 people.
Smart homes, cars, etc. all transmit and receive extraordinary amounts of data through wireless technology, and are all potential targets to cause havoc. Being able to track (and eventually counter) those attacks with tools like SIGINT will become increasingly important to prevent the kid in the basement from "having fun" in the real world.
However, in industries not related to defense, the world of SIGINT is different; it's lighter, rewarding and a game that everyone wins.
For example, first responders could use SIGINT to literally save lives. Tapping into the amount of electrons flying through the air from our personal devices, with the help of a SIGINT-capable drone, search and rescuers could use those emissions to find, with needlepoint accuracy, the lost or stranded individual before they received injury or harm, and largely without concern for environmental conditions such as weather, clouds, or even foliage (Radio signals are strong enough to penetrate through these all, at least to some extent).
So long as you had a device nearby, your cellphone would in essence function as a beacon- an actual lifeline.
If we commit to using SIGINT under legal and moral terms, it's a tool that could produce profound results and benefits to our society.
Andy Von Stauffenberg is the CEO of VStar Systems.