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Point-Counterpoint

A Longtime Tool of the Community

October 1, 2013
By Lewis Shepherd

What do modern intelligence agencies run on? They are internal combustion engines burning pipelines of data, and the more fuel they burn the better their mileage. Analysts and decision makers are the drivers of these vast engines; but to keep them from hoofing it, we need big data.
 
The intelligence community necessarily has been a pioneer in big data since inception, as both were conceived during the decade after World War II. The intelligence community and big data science always have been intertwined because of their shared goal: producing and refining information describing the world around us, for important and utilitarian purposes.

Let’s stipulate that today’s big-data mantra is overhyped. Too many technology vendors are busily rebranding storage or analytics as “big data systems” under the gun from their marketing departments. That caricature rightly is derided by both information technology cognoscenti and non-techie analysts.

I personally understand the disdain for machines, as I had the archetypal humanities background and was once a leather-elbow-patched tweed-jacketed Kremlinologist, reading newspapers and human intelligence (HUMINT) for my data. I stared into space a lot, pondering the Chernenko-Gorbachev transition. Yet as Silicon Valley’s information revolution transformed modern business, media, and social behavior across the globe, I learned to keep up—and so has the intelligence community.

Twitter may be new, but the intelligence community is no Johnny-come-lately in big data. U.S. government funding of computing research in the 1940s and 1950s stretched from World War II’s radar/countermeasures battles to the elemental electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) research at Stanford and MIT, leading to the U-2 and OXCART (ELINT/image intelligence platforms) and the Sunnyvale roots of the National Reconnaissance Office.

Another Overhyped Fad

October 1, 2013
By Mark M. Lowenthal

Director of National Intelligence Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, USAF (Ret.), once observed that one of the peculiar behaviors of the intelligence community is to erect totem poles to the latest fad, dance around them until exhaustion sets in, and then congratulate oneself on a job well done.
 
One of our more recent totem poles is big data. Big data is a byproduct of the wired world we now inhabit. The ability to amass and manipulate large amounts of data on computers offers, to some, tantalizing possibilities for analysis and forecasting that did not exist before. A great deal of discussion about big data has taken place, which in essence means the possibility of gaining new insights and connections from the reams of new data created every day.

Or does it?

Some interesting assumptions about big data need to be probed before we dance some more around this totem pole. A major problem is the counting rules. Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, has said, “We create as much information in two days now as we did from the dawn of man through 2003.” He quantifies this as five exabytes of data (5 x 1018). Schmidt admittedly counts user-generated content such as photos and tweets, for example. All of this may be generated; but is it information, and more importantly, is it intelligence?

This data clearly is information—to someone—but very little of it would qualify as intelligence. It does qualify as a very large haystack in which there are likely to be very few needles that will be of use to anyone engaged in intelligence. To cite a more relevant example, the National Security Agency (NSA) programs lately in the news went through millions of telephone metadata records, which led to 300 further inquiries. The argument can be made that without the NSA metadata program, these leads might not have existed at all; but a means-and-ends argument remains over the larger big data claims.

Is Big Data the Way 
Ahead for Intelligence?

October 1, 2013

Another Overhyped Fad

By Mark M. Lowenthal

Director of National Intelligence Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, USAF (Ret.), once observed that one of the peculiar behaviors of the intelligence community is to erect totem poles to the latest fad, dance around them until exhaustion sets in, and then congratulate oneself on a job well done.

One of our more recent totem poles is big data. Big data is a byproduct of the wired world we now inhabit. The ability to amass and manipulate large amounts of data on computers offers, to some, tantalizing possibilities for analysis and forecasting that did not exist before. A great deal of discussion about big data has taken place, which in essence means the possibility of gaining new insights and connections from the reams of new data created every day.

Or does it?

Read the complete perspective

A Longtime Tool of the Community

By Lewis Shepherd

What do modern intelligence agencies run on? They are internal combustion engines burning pipelines of data, and the more fuel they burn the better their mileage. Analysts and decision makers are the drivers of these vast engines; but to keep them from hoofing it, we need big data.

The intelligence community necessarily has been a pioneer in big data since inception, as both were conceived during the decade after World War II. The intelligence community and big data science always have been intertwined because of their shared goal: producing and refining information describing the world around us, for important and utilitarian purposes.

Read the complete perspective

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