A few years ago, says Jeff Jonas, a friend arranged for him to give a talk at the secretive National Security Agency, widely renowned as the most technology-savvy spy shop in the world. He wasn’t quite sure what to expect. “I had never even set foot in Washington,” says Jonas, founder and chief scientist of Systems Research and Development, a Las Vegas maker of custom software that was being used by casinos and other companies to screen employees and prevent theft. True, Jonas was proud of NORA, his company’s Non-Obvious Relationships Awareness analytic software. The system can cross-correlate millions of transactions per day, extracting such items of interest as the info nugget that a particular applicant for a casino job has a sister who shares a telephone number with a known underworld figure. But Jonas reckoned that this would seem like routine stuff to the wizards of the NSA.Wrong. “I was shocked,” Jonas says. After his talk, several members of the audience told him that his technology was more sophisticated than anything the NSA had. And now Systems Research and Development has several government customers. Indeed, he says, “since September 11, the urgency has really peaked.”
But maybe Jonas shouldn’t have been shocked. There are many explanations for the failure of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and their fellow intelligence agencies to “connect the dots” in time to stop the terrorist attacks. The list of reasons could start with the well-known inability of these organizations to communicate. But their analysts’ out-of-date tool kit surely didn’t help. Over the past decade, the business market has seen extraordinary advances in data mining, information visualization, and many other tools for “sensemaking,” a broad-brush term that covers all the ways people bring meaning to the huge volumes of data that flood the modern world. And yet, in a major study released last October, the Markle Foundation’s Task Force on National Security in the Information Age emphasized that “we have not yet begun to mobilize our society’s strengths in information, intelligence, and technology.”
That’s not quite fair. The mobilization has begun, albeit in piecemeal, internecine fashion. Individual agencies have been eager customers for the new technologies for several years. And since 1999 the CIA has been funding some of the most promising sensemaking companies (including Jonas’s) through In-Q-Tel-the agency’s own Arlington, VA-based venture capital firm. What’s more, in early 2002 the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency upped the ante by systematically developing sensemaking technology through its controversial new Information Awareness Office. But the problem, says the Markle task force, is that because each of the agencies is so intent on obtaining its own intelligence and buying its own technology, there has been no overall planning or coordination. Nor has a significant fraction of the annual $38 billion budgeted for homeland defense been devoted to building a capacity for sharing information or integrating its analysis.
That won’t do. The era inaugurated with such fury by the assault of September 11 imposes a technological imperative: put the pieces of the data gathering and analysis machinery together. We must mobilize the nation’s strengths in networking and analytical technology to create what the Markle task force calls a virtual analytic community: a 21st-century intelligence apparatus that would encompass not just the agencies in Washington, but also private-sector experts, local officials, and even ordinary citizens. The cold war was a mainframe-versus-mainframe confrontation, but the war against terrorism pits the United States against a network. It’s time to take intelligence gathering and interpretation into the network age.