Weight of information: intended and unintended

I think the weight of information might be an essential characteristic, maybe one of the patterns that define information and distinguish one instance of it from another at a fundamental level. For another example, I’m pretty sure that transparency — ability to detect the existence and content of information — is another pattern at the core of information science, with implications for organization, privacy, any rights people may have to information, etc. I’m not sure what other patterns govern information.

But I do believe that what I’m calling weight is one. After dinner recently, I spent some time talking with my sweetie about the case of Christopher Boyce, who passed highly sensitive information about U.S. defense systems to the Soviet Union during the late 1970s, as described by Robert Lindsey in his book The Falcon and the Snowman. Boyce held a job requiring top secret clearance with a government contractor working on surveillance satellites. Somehow some CIA communications were misrouted to him detailing covert plans to interfere with, or at least influence, Australian politics soon after the agency successfully instigated a coup that toppled Somoza’s government in Chile, because it was perceived to be unfriendly to U.S. interests. Boyce was repulsed by this behavior on the part of his own government, and he determined to undertake a personal retaliation by gathering information on U.S. satellite technologies and providing it to the Soviet government. (In addition to this political motive, he and a high school friend also received large amounts of money for the information.)

Clearly, the CIA reports misrouted to Boyce took on a weight that their senders could not have anticipated. They’d have been important enough in their intended use, guiding international politics — either for good or ill. Boyce made them even weightier when he used them as his reason for divulging U.S. technology secrets. The surveillance systems that Boyce compromised lost a lot of their value in guiding Cold War strategic decisions, allowing the Soviet Union to hide military assets and increasing uncertainty about those capabilities on the U.S. side. Decisions about military deployments and deterrent capabilities changed on both sides, so this one action of a single man affected the military balance of terror inherent in nuclear and military politics around the globe for a long time.

I suspect that this episode, sordid as it is at every level, would make a useful case study for clarifying my sense of the weight of information. I think my next step in thinking about this concept should be a lit review for papers on the impact information may have, both intended and incidental to original intentions. Something pretty quantitative should be in place, I would expect, around financial decision-making, and that may be the best place to look overall. A solid way to estimate the effects of information would have rather obvious impact in areas like value of a stock as a result of good or bad news about the company’s business. Much of that theory is now based on modeling gambling situations, but those deal mostly with who knows the information at what point in the process. I’m more interested in how the ‘nature’ of the information — **what** each person knows — affects its weight. Effects on government policy might be a good place to look for that.