How Uber Could Help Solve National Security Problems

The U.S. intelligence community wants feedback from the innovative car-sharing company and other commercial start-ups on its 5-year data-analysis road map.

National Journal
Aug. 10, 2015, 12:18 p.m.

The in­tel­li­gence com­munity this month quietly re­leased an un­pre­ced­en­ted, un­clas­si­fied five-year-road map chart­ing the fu­ture of data ana­lys­is it wants com­mer­cial start-ups like ride-shar­ing firm Uber to read.

The chart, part of a lar­ger sci­ence and tech­no­logy strategy, is aimed at en­cour­aging un­con­ven­tion­al makers like the car ser­vice app-de­veloper and tra­di­tion­al tech con­tract­ors to help fund an­swers to on­com­ing na­tion­al se­cur­ity prob­lems.

The road map is an out­growth of spring work­shops with 40 com­pan­ies that do clas­si­fied work and a gov­ern­ment ana­lys­is of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity’s sci­ence and tech­no­logy needs.

By syncing private-sec­tor re­search now un­der­way with the Of­fice of the Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence’s threat pre­dic­tions, the right tech­no­logy will be ready at the right time at the right price, DNI of­fi­cials say.

The pub­licly avail­able gap ana­lys­is, titled “En­hanced Pro­cessing and Man­age­ment of Data from Dis­par­ate Sources,” maps out one of six fu­ture growth areas for the spy com­munity. The oth­er graph­ics are only for the eyes of in­di­vidu­als hold­ing secret se­cur­ity clear­ances.

So, how might Uber help the dir­ect­or of na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence?

“Maybe they’ve got schedul­ing al­gorithms that would help us with our lo­gist­ics prob­lems,” Dav­id Honey, DNI dir­ect­or of sci­ence and tech­no­logy, said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view with Nex­t­gov. “If we can lever­age those kinds of tools, maybe we gotta ad­apt them a little bit, but that cer­tainly beats hav­ing to go and pay for those things from scratch.”

The na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence pro­gram is fa­cing its fourth year of budget cuts.

Powers U.S. spies need that no one is fund­ing yet in­clude, for ex­ample, ex­pert­ise in de­term­in­ing the bi­ases of so­cial-me­dia site mod­er­at­ors, geo­loca­tion in the pres­ence of en­cryp­tion, room-tem­per­at­ure quantum com­put­ing, and im­mers­ive vir­tu­al-world user ex­per­i­ence.

“One of our goals for the com­ing year is to try and ex­tend our out­reach via whichever trade as­so­ci­ations are will­ing to take it on, in­to the un­cleared com­munity as well,” Honey said, sit­ting in­side DNI’s McLean, Vir­gin­ia headquar­ters. “That’s why get­ting this in­form­a­tion on to the ODNI’s open web­site was so im­port­ant to us. We want to have that out­reach to the non­tra­di­tion­als to in­clude the un­cleared per­former com­munity so that they can gain in­sight in­to what the chal­lenges are that we face so that they can come for­ward with ideas.”

As of four years ago, in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy con­sumed about 23 per­cent of in­tel­li­gence pro­gram fund­ing, ac­cord­ing to DNI. Pres­id­ent Obama has re­ques­ted $53.9 bil­lion for the pro­gram in 2016.

So­cial-Me­dia Over­load

Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per last month de­scribed some in­form­a­tion-munch­ing dif­fi­culties con­front­ing ana­lysts, such as track­ing down lone-wolf ex­trem­ists who have been in­spired by Is­lam­ic State rhet­or­ic.

“With the way people rad­ic­al­ize on their own, or are rad­ic­al­ized via so­cial me­dia where they don’t leave out a sig­na­ture, they don’t emit — some at­trib­ute or trait or be­ha­vi­or that would lead you to be­gin watch­ing them,” Clap­per said at the As­pen Se­cur­ity For­um in Col­or­ado. “And so we’re lack­ing that.”

The dif­fi­culty is then ex­acer­bated by the use of “en­cryp­ted,” or di­git­ally scrambled, com­mu­nic­a­tions, he said.

“Someone is pros­elyted by an ISIL re­cruit­er sit­ting in Syr­ia or some place,” and if that po­ten­tial ex­trem­ist takes an in­terest, “then they’ll switch to, you know, en­cryp­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions that we can’t watch,” Clap­per said.

However, it is not be­lieved the homegrown rad­ic­al Mo­hammad Ab­dulaz­eez, who gunned down five ser­vice­men in Chat­tanooga, Ten­ness­ee, in Ju­ly, used en­cryp­tion to hide plot­ting.

“There’s been no con­nec­tion made” yet, Clap­per ac­know­ledged. He ad­ded that it might be be­ne­fi­cial to quanti­fy the use of en­cryp­tion by ter­ror­ists: “I think we prob­ably need to see what we can do to do a bet­ter job of keep­ing some met­rics” on in­cid­ents “where we ran in­to an en­cryp­tion situ­ation and that sty­mies an in­vest­ig­a­tion,” he said.

The in­tel­li­gence com­munity is not bank­rupt of in­nov­at­ors, by any means.

In-Q-Tel, a CIA-backed ven­ture-cap­it­al firm, has borne fruit from tech­no­lo­gies it helped seed at open-source threat-ana­lys­is firm Re­cor­ded Fu­ture and data-sleuth­ing com­pany Pa­lantir, among some roughly 200 start-ups.

But some­times, un­cleared ex­ecs cre­ate gad­gets and ser­vices that have un­in­ten­tion­al clas­si­fied ap­plic­a­tions, Honey said.

The spy com­munity might look at, for in­stance, Twit­ter ana­lyt­ics to dis­cern how a mass-ci­vil­ian-cas­u­alty in­cid­ent over­seas is af­fect­ing for­eign sen­ti­ment to­ward Amer­ica.

So­cial me­dia “is in many cases an in­dic­at­or of de­vel­op­ments that pre­vi­ously we nev­er would have had ac­cess to. One time, the best open-source in­form­a­tion source would have been CNN,” Honey said. “But today, with all the so­cial-me­dia activ­ity that’s out there, we need to un­der­stand what’s com­ing be­fore it gets here — not after it’s already here and now we’re be­hind the curve in un­der­stand­ing how to in­ter­pret it.”

People might ask, “How could you not fol­low what goes on on Twit­ter?” he ad­ded. “Well, it hasn’t been around that long.”

Crowd­sourcing Clas­si­fied R&D

The data-ana­lyt­ics road map fills up a couple of sheets in a 26-page un­clas­si­fied 2016-2020 DNI sci­ence and tech­no­logy strategy pos­ted on­line in re­cent days.

Bring­ing the pa­per to life already has re­quired the use of so­cial me­dia. Con­tract­ors and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are crowd­sourcing up­dates to the doc­u­ment and match­ing agency needs with fun­ded cor­por­ate pro­jects on a clas­si­fied web­site, Honey said.

The col­lab­or­a­tion en­vir­on­ment is loc­ated on a top-secret sys­tem called Jwics, for Joint World­wide In­tel­li­gence Com­mu­nic­a­tions Sys­tem.

It’s easy to com­pare this ven­ture to a wiki, but un­like, say, Wiki­pe­dia, the spy sys­tem must be able to push out ed­its to rel­ev­ant agen­cies and rel­ev­ant com­pan­ies in a timely fash­ion.

Agen­cies “need to be able to post the chal­lenge in a way that the sys­tem auto­mat­ic­ally alerts the right tech­no­logy sup­pli­ers,” and “if you’re a tech­no­logy pro­vider and you are post­ing new solu­tions, the solu­tions need to be able to find their way to the cus­tom­er” without every­body do­ing a search every day, Honey said.

If feas­ible, DNI will cre­ate a pub­lic Web space for in­di­vidu­als without clear­ances to con­trib­ute sug­ges­tions for the un­clas­si­fied strategy, he said.

Oth­er road maps de­signed dur­ing the re­cent con­tract­or work­shops chart rifts in, among oth­er things, space cap­ab­il­it­ies, glob­al pro­lif­er­a­tion pre­dic­tion ca­pa­city, and the abil­ity of nov­el sensors to re­veal ad­versary ac­tions.

The busi­nesses that par­ti­cip­ated in the meet­ings are gath­er­ing a week from Monday to start de­vel­op­ing yard­sticks for meas­ur­ing pro­gress in each gap area, Honey said.

Out­siders want­ing to help equip spies who have not been briefed on top-secret in­tel­li­gence are not ne­ces­sar­ily at a dis­ad­vant­age. They might be more likely to de­vise tech­no­lo­gies that go bey­ond mere up­grades.

“If you are too close to the clas­si­fied in­form­a­tion, you are go­ing to try to cre­ate a faster horse,” Honey said. “Quite of­ten, people who have just a gen­er­al know­ledge of what we’re try­ing to do are in a bet­ter po­s­i­tion to help us think about new solu­tions than those who are deeply in­grained in the ma­chine.”

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