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H. T. Goranson. Spying on Eros

November 29, 2006

A Sydney-based Muslim cleric, Sheik Hilaly, recently made headlines in Australia when he publicly reflected that immodest women invite rape because they are like "uncovered meat." More unfortunate still was his implication that this was the cause of a series of gang rapes in Sydney in 2000, in which the attackers' legal defense was that they thought the women were sexually available because they wore Western clothes.

Although local Muslim leaders have since criticized Hilaly's attitude, the incident again raises the question of attitudes regarding sex in "orthodox" communities, and how they can be reconciled with prevailing norms in the West.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the controversy over government spying on its citizens seems to have died down, mostly because people are now convinced that their government will only look at the really bad guys.

What do these two issues have in common?

Gathering sophisticated intelligence is largely a matter of understanding trends. It is less important, for instance, to steal a copy of North Korea's bomb designs than to know the morale and capability of its scientists. It is important to know how much deprivation in a country would swing public opinion. Like most social science, measurement of these dynamics is conducted indirectly.

Intelligence analysts operate like scientists, in the sense that they develop theories, then measure and test them. Like scientists, they prefer to work with huge amounts of data, which is why the US government wants a record of every call and financial transaction made by every inhabitant of the country. Tracking the movement of individuals by the locator in their cell phones is possible, and it is surely under consideration.

That is because intelligence agents look for indicators, correlations, and causes. Causes are the hardest to understand. For example, the civil services in Iraq have recently crossed a threshold beyond which they are now probably impossible to administer. A significant reason is believed to be the steady flight of intellectuals from Iraq, which seems obvious, but is difficult to measure.

Indicators and correlations are easier to demonstrate. If a lot of people are leaving their seats during a sporting event, you might consider it an indication that the event is not exciting.

During the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies developed an immense catalogue of indicators and correlations. If train traffic on certain routes increased, it suggested that army food supplies were being delivered, thus hinting at impending military action. Likewise, shipments of toilet paper are amazingly accurate indicators of military activity. Once the Soviets realized this, they began to send bogus shipments around the country on random schedules, creating shortages for the baffled civilian population.

As it turns out, another extremely useful view into a society is the type of pornography it consumes, together with how that pornography is manufactured and delivered. Yes, it is true. Spies are interested in prurient behavior everywhere.

One reason is that pornography in orthodox societies is illicit, so the distribution channels opened by sexual materials are usually used for other goods as well. In the Muslim world, there is a significant, important flow of pornography. According to one story, possibly apocryphal, in the 1970's, the Islamic insurgency in Iran was initially planned using material delivered through porn-related channels because the mosques were so tightly controlled.

But there are other trends indicated by pornographic content that are useful to spies. Movies produced for the sexual gratification of consumers reveal cultural norms of restriction, transgression, and otherness. In fact, porn is so specifically tuned to the tastes of consumers that shifts can indicate changes in a society almost immediately.

Interestingly, many purveyors of pornography initially thought that better quality video would make their product more desirable. However, it seems that high production values were actually less popular. So a "casual" production style was adopted, similar to the design of worn and ripped jeans. Part of the raw appeal of pornography, it seems, is that the product itself be raw, and conspicuously illicit.

But local tastes nonetheless vary widely. Japanese porn features schoolgirls, often bound. Egyptian porn before Nasser featured local beauties and voyeurism, but now focuses on fair-haired and pale-skinned women, sometimes with forced sex as a theme. Egyptian-born Sheik Hilaly, in Sydney, may have been verbalizing a latent sense of otherness and mistaking it for insight.

This means that tinkering with the content of porn could be in the national interest, under certain circumstances. Anyone privy to details of such activities cannot comment on them, but one story circulating in the research community involved attempts to introduce condoms into African porn as part of an anti-AIDS effort.

Then, of course, there is the biggest market of all: the US, where it is estimated that annual revenue for pornography in 2004 exceeded the combined revenue of the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks by many billions of dollars. We should not be surprised if someone eventually tries to tweak the content of pornography to exploit Americans' cultural proclivities on behalf of other products, causes, or even political candidates.

H. T. Goranson is the Lead Scientist of Sirius-Beta Corp and was a Senior Scientist with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.