I have a theory, created in the aftermath of 9/11. It was a time when the US was attempting to get off its knees, to absorb the attack, to count the bodies, get money to the surviving families to needed it, sort of re-orient ourselves as a country that had been attacked by jihadists. At the time, we really didn’t know what that meant. But also there was an undercurrent of energy. We’d just seen a certain segment of our society pulled back: the Washington DC culture (FBI, CIA, NSA, and all supporting intelligence branches) suddenly became prominent. These became agencies we heard about on the nightly news instead of the mysterious entities mired in distracting cover of the White House and Congress. And in that sudden spotlight, every American suddenly felt they had a handle on the intelligence actions of our country. We were all intelligence experts because all this information was suddenly culled from the depths and spread out for everyone to see.

On the one hand, it was very condescending to believe we knew anything at all. Like watching news and reading the internet made us a deputized intelligence officer. On the other, it did allow a new accountability for those agencies.

When a rumor was floated that Attorney General Ashcroft wanted to know the library books citizens were checking out, I was struck with an idea.

No two people on the planet have read the same two books. Your library is as individual as your fingerprint. I wondered why FBI agents who were doing raids on houses of suspected jihadists didn’t take a full accounting of the books on the premises in order to build a kind of profile.

This idea, of course, has several flaws. The first is, what possible use could a profile be? The answer is probably none. But maybe there’s some kind of common thread in the books people read, or even in the percentages. Say, if a person’s book collection is 1/5 biographies and 1/2 history and 1/3 fiction, it’s possible that means something above and beyond the obvious and rather prosaic taste in books. I don’t know what it could “mean”. One possibility is that people can be broken down into “types” the same way FBI agents divide crimes into “unorganized” and “organized.”

Say you start with a “fiction-minded” person vs. a “history-minded person.” Would the fiction minded person be more prone to tell lies? Exaggerate? Would analysts take that into consideration if they were, say, searching for a serial killer?

I have no idea. The fact is, most of the profiling done by FBI agents is guesswork. Maybe intelligent guesswork, but still guesswork. But I can’t help but believe that if you’re doing guesswork, why not broaden the basis for your guesses to help inform the profile you’re creating.

Books seem to me a great place to start. They are, after all, reflections of things that are now in people’s heads. They’re a personal choice. They’re individualized; even if millions have read Eat, Pray, Love, how many have read Eat, Pray, Love and Mein Kampf? or Eat, Pray, Love and Mein Kampf and, Poems of John Donne?

There is something to be learned in that. I don’t know whether it has any relevance to intelligence agents, but I think it’s a worthy line of inquiry.


  1. Netflix of course analyzes people’s movie choices…some researchers somewhere were recently doing a study of some kind and found that by analyzing anonymized data from Netflix and similar anonymized data from some other movie site, they were able to identify specific individuals with a pretty high degree of certainty.

  2. Data mining is an interesting and scary field of research. I don’t doubt the validity of that study at all, David.

    Once you start tying certain behaviors to others, it’s amazing how much you can begin to chart predictability.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      Agreed. I was thinking that it’s the opposite of Amazon’s recommendations. Amazon is saying, “here, based on your reading you might like this.”

      My idea is saying, “based on your reading you ARE this.”

  3. Very interesting concept; makes you think doesn’t it?

    You may have inadvertently mentioned a concept that I’ve tried to get people to understand since 9/11; intelligence gathering and analysis. Basically, it is like you said about profiling; it is intelligent guess work.

    What most people don’t realize is that on average, the amount of intel gathered on a daily basis, is so large that it would one person 18 years to go through it, analyze it, interpret it and make a recommendation. Eighteen years; that’s 37,440 man-hours (40 hrs a week x 52 weeks x 18 years). Granted, we don’t have a single person doing this, but you can figure that even if you had a team of 100 people, it would take 47 days to process ONE days worth of intel, and intel gathering continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a wonder we’re able to do as well as we do.

    Add to the equation that intel analysis is not an exact science. Recommendations are basically guesses on the part of the analyst. Guesses made by experts in their fields, based on past experience, political climate, and a myriad of other factors, but it boils down to and educated guess. In the military community, we jokingly refer to it as a SWAG or Scientific Wild A$$ Guess. Additionally, intel is extremely fluid and ever changing.

    Finally, add to the equation that government agencies still don’t share information like they should, they want to protect their turf.

    The bottom line is that intel/profiling etc is a crap shoot. When we know the details, we might not be so fast to blame those who have to make decisions based on the information they have at any given time.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      Very thoughtful reply. Thanks R!

    • R1, are you active? I wasn’t in intel, but I was stationed with all those freaks at Fort Huachuca for three years 😀

      • Cullen, no, not anymore. I retired several years ago. So actually, my numbers may be a bit dated, but I’m sure they haven’t gotten much better. Although, with all the cuts in the intel community, maybe a few folks can handle the massively reduced volume…

  4. Please cease and desist with these types of speculative posts of a generally sensitive nature, or WE will be forced to “visit” you.

  5. Cara–It was a joke. You know–BIG BROTHER.

    Sheila–No promises, but…

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