March 17, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: No Eyes: MH370 and the Limits of Information Sharing
The still-unfolding tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has attracted so much attention not only because of the immense human cost—with 239 families grieving, it’s indeed beyond cost—but because the incident reveals the frustrating boundaries of information sharing between countries and the humbling limits of technical surveillance coverage over vast regions of the planet. In an age of ubiquitous communications and tracking, a wide-body 777 jet has disappeared. It’s been ten days of worldwide attention since the plane disappeared on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and not only do officials not know why it happened but also they don’t even know what happened or where it happened.
No distress calls were made. No alerting technical communications were received—as was the case with the 2009 Air France tragedy, the last commercial airliner to “disappear.” No wreckage has been spotted (the debris field—a term now in the common lexicon—from the Air France flight was found five days after it went down over the Atlantic Ocean). Only tertiary satellite pings and secondary radar returns have provided compelling indications that the disappearance was intentional. This is unprecedented.
Also unprecedented are the compelling pressures and need for 22 countries to share what they assess to be sensitive satellite or radar information, in the effort to locate the missing plane. Such technical details are usually considered among a country’s crown jewels of secrets. Nations expend a great deal of effort in both preventing outsiders from learning their own capabilities as well as attempting to learn the capabilities of everyone else. Malaysia’s request for over 20 countries to provide technical information illustrates` just how big the search area is, and how badly the information is needed in the absence of traditional aviation clues.
Two factors make this request for sharing even more difficult.
First, the type of data requested is not run-of-the-mill active tracking of an aircraft along a known Flight Information Region (FIR) or air traffic control (ATC) route. The capabilities of ATC radars and satellites that are tasked to track such flights are reasonably well known. What is not well known, and therefore sensitive, is the capabilities of radars and satellites to collect on things they aren’t focused on. This possible/assumed ambient collection of everything electronic in a defined area will likely provide clues to both the fate and location of MH370, but sharing it is not as straightforward as the public assumes.
The term “Five Eyes” refers to the signals intelligence sharing agreement between the United States, The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These five countries share, with few exceptions, most of their signals intelligence, which would include satellite/radar imagery and data. There is no “Twenty-Two Eyes” agreement—or precedent—in place for countries such as China, France, Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, and others to share information of a nature that is specific enough to actually help, in terms of ruling out locations/flight paths or confirming them. Again, the ATC capabilities (the dedicated tracking of civilian air traffic) are not the issue but rather the unknown capabilities of military radars and satellites to track something they aren’t looking for. This is “No Eyes” territory.
Second, the countries in the region around Malaysia are not on the best of terms, to put it mildly. Tensions between China and Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, and even Japan, are at uncomfortably high levels. Issues such as territorial boundaries, fishing and mineral rights, naval capabilities, and as of late, “air defense information zones,” have led to low-level stand-offs and near-skirmishes that threaten regional stability. It is primarily from these nervous neighbors that Malaysia has requested sensitive technical details. Adding further significant challenges, prospective scenarios now involve FIRs of India and Pakistan. Information exchange of this sort of data would be genuinely unprecedented.
The heightened tensions might lead these countries to overprotect information that normally wouldn’t be that sensitive, for fear of revealing weaknesses or strengths. The result could be vague responses that don’t provide the granularity or unexpected details needed to resolve the issue. Apart from the human tragedy, officials need to quickly determine what happened in order to assess if there are similar risks to other aircraft, commercial and otherwise. The need for information is not just to solve the question of what happened to MH370 and its victims, but also to prevent a similar disaster from happening to another flight. The notion of “No Eyes” won’t help investigators in their task.
The TSG IntelBrief often notes trends in Big Data collection and analysis, and how they relate to geopolitics and stability. The tragedy of MH370 speaks to the need to reassess the trend in Big Data sharing. Globalization isn’t limited to commerce and trade. It applies to information as well. Disasters both man-made and natural affect many countries simultaneously, increasing the need for sharing of capabilities and data once considered close-hold. It is uncomfortable for nations to share at this level, but as MH370 is demonstrating, we need as many eyes as possible—for the sake of critical mutual interests—looking as we travel over vast distances.
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