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Software
Spies Like Us

Search engines find keywords in mountains of information. But suppose you need – really need – to look for what data miners call “roles and relationships”: who’s doing what, with whom, where, when, and how? For answers, the CIA is turning to a Palo Alto, CA-based startup called Attensity whose linguistics-based software extracts that kind of information from e-mail, electronic message boards, and other free-form text. David Bean is Attensity’s cofounder and CTO.

How do linguistics geeks end up doing spook work?
A couple of months after September 11, the CIA’s venture capital office, In-Q-Tel, called us and said, “We hear you can extract roles and relationships from unstructured text.” We said, “Yes, we’re working on it.” They ended up as our lead investor.

You’ve also got Whirlpool and General Motors as clients. What’s in it for them?
We can deal with input that is noisy – run-on sentences, fragments, misspellings. That’s what you typically get in the real world of e-mail and product support. We can comb through it all and pinpoint where customers are having problems.

So have you all got top-secret clearances?
Actually not. Part of In-Q-Tel’s purpose is to work with companies that are not typical players with the government. We give them the software and teach them how to use it, and then they go and do things they don’t tell us about.

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