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Intelink Confronts Growing Pains

October 2000
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

New commercial Web tools melded with internal expertise keep the secure intelligence network on top.

The World Wide Web’s commercial revolution is feeding new capabilities to Intelink, the intelligence community’s independent intranet. As usage increases and information grows exponentially, Intelink is adapting Web tools to serve the increasingly complex needs of a secure network.

Search engines now allow analysts to target specific subtopics without sifting through an enormous menu of information sources. Streaming video technologies allow diverse users to view intelligence conferences thousands of miles from their actual locations. And, cookies and other tracking tools designed for commercial Web advertising are redirected to help recognize a customer’s traditional areas of interest.

While it is headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland, Intelink nonetheless is a global entity. “Intelink is the World Wide Web for the intelligence community,” James P. Peak, director of the Intelink management office, says. In that role, Intelink offers strengths and weaknesses similar to its commercial counterpart.

The big difference is that Intelink does not run on public networks. It comprises two separate encrypted environments—secret and top secret. However, it does provide most of the services common to the World Wide Web—search engines, streaming audio and video, and some business-to-business applications. In terms of products, Intelink digitally records yearly conferences and streams them for users who cannot attend. “Our business is information, and the Web is all about information,” Peak relates.

“In the past, we used to produce this information on paper and move it on pallets on airplanes,” Peak allows. “That simply doesn’t happen anymore—no one would wait.”

The biggest advantage Intelink can provide its customers is immediacy with a global reach, Peak states. Information is available as soon as it is published anywhere in the world, and users can access that information regardless of their own locations. “Distance is dead in this environment,” he says. While this is no different from the Web, it means everything to intelligence analysts who formerly were walled off from one another. “This gives them the opportunity to work around the world, around the clock,” he emphasizes.

From its beginnings as an experiment in April 1994 that reached operational status that fall with 20 servers spread globally, Intelink has grown to 400 servers, thousands of web pages, and megabytes of information. Its evolution over the intervening years largely mirrored that of the Web, but Peak notes that Intelink has its special areas of concern. Considerable effort has gone into knowing its users and controlling their access to information.

Many of these security concerns exist on the Web as well, but with Intelink on two private networks—and because users effectively surrender their privacy rights upon entry to the domain—Intelink can use marketers’ tracking mechanisms in ways that are different from the commercial sector. Peak relates that these mechanisms, instead of targeting a user for pop-up advertising, are employed for protecting information and for tailoring the user’s experience.

The network has just opened two new remote Intelink service management centers, known as ISMCs. These around-the-clock operations run all of the search engines and maintain all of the bulletin boards. The unmanned facilities, which are managed from the Intelink center at Fort Meade, are located in the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and at the European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

As with many data networks, Intelink’s success is creating some speed bumps. Peak notes that its rapid growth and amassed information is affecting its search capabilities. Intelink’s first commercial search engines were “lightning fast,” even faster than anything available on the Internet. At that time, these search engines were indexing a relatively small space. Now, Intelink’s space is growing, and one of its primary commercial search engines can take up to five days—set at an aggressive setting—to index the information space.

Another problem inherent in Intelink’s commercial counterpart is web site clutter. Old web pages often are forgotten and not removed from the network. For example, a burst of activity five years ago might have spawned a corresponding web site that faded into memory when the original interest waned. Unused, the web page may still be taking up space on the system. One solution for this information management problem is more discipline, Peak allows.

The massive influx of information has forced changes in the way data is searched. A metadata standard requires data producers to employ a small set of metadata to mark their information. When it is used correctly, this is a powerful tool for finding information, Peak relates.

However, this metadata labeling must be performed by humans, which always opens the door to potential errors of commission or omission. Information not marked with metadata could be overlooked for several days by the network’s indexing web walker. One potential solution would be automatic metadata markup, which is beginning to appear in the commercial sector.

Many customer requirements emerge from users discovering a World Wide Web capability on the Internet. When they want to incorporate that capability on Intelink, its managers must resort to triage, Peak explains. They subject the recommendation to several criteria: whether it fits in the Intelink environment; if it makes sense; whether it would be truly useful to Intelink customers; and if it is secure, which is the most important criteria. “Our job is to get those kinds of things that pass the gates rolled out as quickly as possible,” Peak states. “We are not in the long-term development business. We don’t do R&D [research and development] as the term is normally used; we’re in the business of integrating COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] solutions.”

Peak continues that Intelink has “a wide-open funnel” for its commercial triage process. Even though some ideas “are dead on arrival,” Intelink officials consider virtually any potential solution for possible application to the network. “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you get a prince,” he quips.

Drawbacks can emerge from commonplace commercial functions. For example, a business plan for a piece of COTS software may assume that the host network will sell advertising. Intelink does not allow advertising, and a commercial application that must report back to its maker on the Internet cannot operate in the secure intelligence environments. A commercial entity cannot have any insight into the application’s operations on Intelink. Peak notes that Intelink officials have been able to work around this obstacle.

Intelink is expending considerable effort on directory services. Using full-service directories to manage information access is the next step, Peak warrants. “We’re just on the cusp of beginning to roll out those sorts of solutions,” he allows.

Intelink offers a number of security measures. It runs a fully operational public key infrastructure, and it provides secure communities of interest that enable groups of analysts to work in privacy isolated from other analysts. Their information can be protected and separated from all other information on Intelink.

According to Peak, Intelink’s biggest problem is a lack of awareness among its users. “People don’t know what’s on their desktops. Analysts and other people in the intelligence business are often very busy, and if they click on something and it doesn’t work for them, they may never come back. We don’t have a good way of communicating to them when we have something new,” he admits.

Some natural cultural resistance to Intelink has emerged throughout its tenure. Calling this tendency a “generation gap,” Peak notes that it has not held back Intelink development.

Of Intelink’s two networks, analysts tend to use the top-secret environment while operational users tend toward the secret environment. Peak says one goal is to move information to these operational users in the secret environment. This will require analysts with higher classifications to collaborate with each other and contribute more information to Intelink.

In addition to its web capabilities, Intelink offers specialized qualities for analysts. Peak notes that analysts do not always know what they are searching for, but they recognize it when they see it. An Intelink search engine called Athens from Pacific-Sierra Research takes a different approach to answering search requests. Instead of generating an overwhelming list for one popular target word, Athens provides users with a range of topics for each search. This permits analysts to narrow the field and select a more specific category for their needs.

High on the Intelink wish list are more personalization services. Nearing introduction is My Intelink, which is a capability that will enable individual users to tailor services to their needs. Describing it as a vastly revamped home page, Peak explains that it is partly driven from information stored in databases. This allows it to be more dynamic and changeable than the existing home page. Individuals will be able to set their own view of information by selecting their own displayoptions and benefiting from cookies accessed at Intelink center.

The network’s intelligence community electronic hosting user support environment, or ICEHoUSE, program is designed to provide a high-assurance, high-availability web hosting service for the intelligence community. It will support digital production initiatives as a basis of Intelink’s future.

Another area of interest is instant messaging. Emerging open-source software could provide this capability to Intelink, which will help collaboration between analysts. Peak is seeking normal commercial collaboration systems, and he says he would be comfortable giving analysts “a smorgasbord of choices.”

Peak relates that planning for Intelink does not include a long-term outlook. “We are relentlessly tactical in our viewpoint,” he says. “To me, long-term is 18 months. Other government efforts are pointed toward that long term, but we are just trying to bridge between now and the 18-month horizon.