Predicting Corporate Intelligence Agencites in the 1960s

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
January 24, 2017

The recent tumult around the emergence of a dossier suggesting salacious things about President Donald Trump has cast light on a series of for-profit intelligence firms with names like “Orbis International” and “Fusion GPS.” Such organizations are part of a huge industry providing information, analysis, and “decision advantage” for companies, investors, political parties, and often government agencies. It is a giant industry, and one that was predicted with remarkable insight in 1966.

Bill Fair

Every time one of us applies for a car loan, a mortgage, or myriad other modern conveniences, we agree to a credit check. One of the major providers of this service is Fair, Isaac and Company (NYSE: FICO), which provides the ubiquitous “FICO score,” one of the analytic building blocks of modern consumer lending. Earl Isaac and William “Bill” Fair founded this California-based company in 1956. Fair, an engineer, with degrees from Cal Tech, Stanford, and Berkeley, was a pioneer in “statistically-based decision processes and automated processing technologies.” He was also ahead of his time in thinking about something else: private sector intelligence.

In 1966, Bill Fair, using his company affiliation, published an article in Management Science that was a fascinating exercise in predicting the future. In “The Corporate CIA—A Prediction of Things to Come,” Fair argued that changes in markets and technology would both enable, and make likely, the emergence of private sector equivalents to national intelligence services. He argued that there would “…soon be a confluence of the technical capability, manpower and motivation for corporations to know their competitors much better than they do now.” Essentially, he predicted the modern industries of competitive intelligence and business intelligence as well as many of their technological undertakings that are today being lumped under the sobriquets of “analytics” and “big data.”

What Fair Got Right

Fair pointed to three drivers pushing toward the emergence of a “corporate CIA.” Two were technological in nature: the growth and development of computers for information storage and retrieval and the increase in the availability and capability of sensors, microphones, and other information collection technologies. While this all prefigured the rise of modern cyberspace, he recognized that the increased availability of data, better availability of mechanisms to detect and collect that data, and proliferating computers to process, analyze, and hold such data indefinitely all pointed to a private sector intelligence function. While Fair may not have predicted the rise of the Internet and cyberspace, he clearly understood the implications of technology for data creation, collection, retention and analysis in general.

Read the full piece at War on the Rocks