Early GIS in MI5?

Just finished reading Spycatcher by Peter Wright. You might remember this book for the attempt by Margaret Thatcher’s government to enjoin publication, only for the book to receive publicity and perhaps increased sales when it was eventually published (the lawsuits fell at each hurdle). The reason for the government’s action was that Wright, a former MI5 scientific officer and fairly senior counterintelligence (CI) officer, revealed a number of secrets and codewords, as well as various activities of the intel services (mostly MI5 but also MI6 and the CIA).

I remember this case at the time (the book was published in 1988, but the government I believe tried to get an injunction as early as 1985). Since I was living in the US at the time, there were not the press embargoes that were applied to the British media. In one case for example, a review of the book in the UK press could only be printed as a blank page, with a note saying that while in other countries the review appeared in the space, in the UK it could not be printed. (I’m not sure if these were D-notices, which as I understand it are voluntarily adhered to by the media, or some other legal injunction. By contrast, when the Guardian was preparing to publish the first Snowden documents, they decided to publish despite government requests not to.) What struck most people as going too far was that the British government continued its legal action for injunctions despite the fact that the book came out, and was available (eg in Scotland and the USA). This was an important early lesson for me, well before the web, of the globalization of information, and how out of date the UK government was.

Among the more notorious parts of the book was Wright’s growing claim that the  Director General of MI5, Roger Hollis, was a Soviet agent (spy). The best that can be said about this apparently is “nor proven,” to cite Scottish law. (Chapman Pincher has made the same claims, though he might be drawing on Wright’s material for this.)

In any case, most of Wright’s material covered the 1960s and various bugging operations, and his debriefing of Anthony Blunt, etc. It’s a good read. Stella Rimington, the MI5 chief, in a piece published the day before 9/11, heavily criticized Wright for being lazy and paranoid. She says that he wrote the book to name every codeword he could recall–which is quite a few actually. Hard to blame her for feeling this way, of course!

But to me a small comment made in the middle of the book is the most interesting. Wright says that in 1964 they had been working for four years on Movement Analysis, using data from MI5 surveillance agents known as the Watchers, to track movements of individuals and suspects. Wright comments that they had amassed millions of data.

This is possibly big spatial data avant la lettre. Of course today we have activity-based intelligence (ABI) sweeping through the intel community, but it goes to show that nothing is ever quite as new as it seems. I wonder what computer systems and analysis they used, and how “geographical” it was? Quite a bit, I imagine.

One of the names associated with the project, beside Wright himself, was Hal Doyne-Ditmas. (Funnily enough he was a friend of John McPhee, the geological and naturalist writer in the New Yorker.) It would be an interesting part of the history of GIS project to determine what this looked like, and how much was shared with the Americans (some, according to Wright).

An early use of GIS by MI5?


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