I missed this super-interesting speech by CIA Director David Petraeus on the relationship between technological change and the transformation, along many dimensions, of intelligence. (The speech was delivered at the In-Q-Tel CEO Summit in March.) A flavor:
[T]ransformational changes in the nature of intelligence work have driven us to adopt the kind of innovative technologies developed by the firms represented in this room. And I’d like to briefly discuss three major challenges of this new era: the utter transparency of the digital world, the enormous task of processing so-called Big Data, and the ever-greater need for speed.
First, given the digital transparency I just mentioned, we have to rethink our notions of identity and secrecy. In the digital world, data is everywhere, as you all know well. Data is created constantly, often unknowingly and without permission. Every byte left behind reveals information about location, habits, and, by extrapolation, intent and probable behavior. The number of data points that can be collected is virtually limitless—presenting, of course, both enormous intelligence opportunities and equally large counterintelligence challenges. We must, for example, figure out how to protect the identity of our officers who increasingly have a digital footprint from birth, given that proud parents document the arrival and growth of their future CIA officer in all forms of social media that the world can access for decades to come. Moreover, we have to figure out how to create the digital footprint for new identities for some officers.
As you all know, exploiting the intelligence opportunities—which is an easier subject to discuss in an unclassified setting than the counterintelligence challenges—will require a new class of in-place and remote sensors that operate across the electromagnetic spectrum. Moreover, these sensors will be increasingly interconnected. . . .
Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters—all connected to the next-generation Internet using abundant, low cost, and high-power computing—the latter now going to cloud computing, in many areas greater and greater supercomputing, and, ultimately, heading to quantum computing.
In practice, these technologies could lead to rapid integration of data from closed societies and provide near-continuous, persistent monitoring of virtually anywhere we choose. “Transformational” is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies, particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft. Taken together, these developments change our notions of secrecy and create innumerable challenges—as well as opportunities.
Secondly, the CIA and our Intelligence Community partners must be able to swim in the ocean of “Big Data.” Indeed, we must be world class swimmers—the best, in fact. We are inundated by constantly evolving open sources of foreign information, such as social media, that can provide invaluable, real-time insights. The Arab Spring has been a case study in how these rich streams of data can speak volumes on how a breaking crisis is liable to develop. And our Open Source Center and social media folks are on it. Of course, making sense of today’s massive quantities of unstructured data presents enormous challenges as well. For any given high-interest event, the “digital dust” to which we have access is being delivered by the equivalent of dump trucks! . . .
This ocean of Big Data has implications for both intelligence collection and intelligence analysis. For collection, having access to free and open information on so many topics that used to be denied to us allows our Agency to better focus our human intelligence effort—which often involves high costs and risks—on learning the key secrets that justify those costs and risks.
The implications of big data loom largest, of course, for our analytic effort. I’m convinced that the CIA has the greatest, most talented concentration of all-source intelligence analysts in the entire world; individuals unequaled in their ability to pull together the product of myriad sources of intelligence—human, signals, imagery, liaison, and so on, in addition to open sources—and to provide analysis with true insight. We place a high premium on knowledge, including regional and cultural expertise, and skills such as foreign language fluency, and fluency with applications that enable them. Indeed, we owe our analysts tools and systems that increasingly help them to give structure and meaning to the mountain of raw intelligence and to place it in proper context for the President and our policymakers.
Moreover, our analysts must discern the non-obvious relationships embedded deeply within different types of data: finding connections between a purchase here, a phone call there, a grainy video, customs and immigration information, various embedded meta-data, and so on—and then making sense of it. Ultimately, if you combine the open-source feeds such as those I mentioned with the increasingly massive volumes of classified data we receive, it’s clear that the CIA and our Community partners require new ways to organize and unify this universe of data—to make it usable, to accelerate automation, and to enable data traceability, relevance, and security. In short, these solutions must lead to automated discovery, rather than depending on the right analyst asking the right question. . . .
Finally, and my third point, is that we need products that help us respond to threats at the speed our mission demands. . . . Over the past decade, we have achieved considerable progress along the continuum from responsive and reactive to predictive and preventive, and we must sustain that momentum. . . .
We require speed not only in performing our mission, but in developing and fielding tools that are as state-of-the art when they arrive in the field as when they were designed. It used to be acceptable to take years to build a new capability. Now we’re lucky if we have months between identifying a need and deploying a solution. Sometimes the deadline we’re facing is only weeks—or even days.
Industry’s ability to rapidly prototype new products and get them to market—especially our market—is a skill that government simply cannot match. And so, in many cases, we rely on the private sector for the developmental speed that intelligence work requires. In-Q-Tel and its partner companies, through the Interface Center, help accelerate our application of technology—and, consequently, our ability to meet our global mission.