Using Intelligence Databases in History

By Roger Davies / 13 October 2013 / Data Manipulation, History, Palantir

Today it is axiomatic that intelligence databases and their operation are essential to manage large amounts of data when police and other state apparatus is used to defend against and defeat those with violent intent such as terrorists. Modern systems such as Palantir utilise cutting edge information technology and innovative software techniques to provide investigator and analysts with the very best ways of managing data in order to see patterns, to link and to cross-reference.

But, of course, this is not new. One of the earliest databases I can find was developed by the Minister of Police under Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Fouché. Fouche was a powerful man, as often as not working against the governments he served, as with them. He had a stormy relationship with Bonaparte but was responsible for investigating the Christmas Eve 1800 “truck bomb” plot against Napoleon, which I have written about in my blog here.


The initial blame was focused on the “Jacobins” but Fouche demonstrated it was a Royalist plot by the “Chouans”. In 1803/1804 he prevented a second assassination plot by the “Chouans”, at least in part by the innovative use of an early card index “database, which he called the “Chouan’s Geography”. I’m tracking down information slowly (my French is weak!) but Fouché seems to have developed a complex card index database system for keeping information on these “terrorists” and running queries. I think it was the first effective database used for this purpose.

Fouché was no angel and was given the nickname “The Butcher of Lyon” when he arranged for the mass killing of hundreds in Lyon.  Many ascribe to him the development of the tools of the quintessential modern police state. But perhaps despite that we should recognise in him the vision of a comprehensive intelligence database. Fouché also developed what can easily be seen as the first efforts of modern forensic investigations – he was conducting C-IED network attack well before the attack of 1800, to good effect, seizing components of IEDs, IED designs and the perpertators and planners of IED attacks. See his memoirs, p151 – 152

Fouché was clearly running an effective “all source” fusion centre – he supplied Bonaparte with intelligence reports six days a week, every week covering the following sources:

  1. Palace gossip.
  2. Audience reaction to a new play.
  3. Stock market prices.
  4. Desertions from the army.
  5. Arrests of foreign agents.
  6. Results of interrogations.
  7. News of crime.
  8. Offences by soldiers.
  9. Fires.
  10. Rebellion against the Gendarmarie.
  11. Intercepted correspondence.
  12. Visiting personages.
  13. Public reception of news of victories.
  14. Shipping news.
  15. Indiscretions of Fouché’s enemies.
  16. Contractor’s tenders.
  17. Agitation against the draft.
  18. Suicides.
  19. Prison epidemics.
  20. Progress of construction.
  21. Unemployment figures.
  22. Extracts from inter-ministerial correspondence.
  23. Persons detained or under special surveillance.

2 comments on “Using Intelligence Databases in History

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