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Intelligence Taps Industry for Essential Technologies

James Bond’s U.S. counterpart may be equipped more with commercial technologies than with systems developed in intelligence community laboratories. The private sector will be called upon to provide even more capabilities to help keep the intelligence community ahead of adversaries and budget cuts.

The U.S. intelligence community will be relying to a greater degree on commercial technologies to meet its current and future requirements, including some that formerly were the purview of government laboratories. And, because much of the community’s research is applied research, it will select its budgeting priorities based in part on how well the commercial sector can fill in some technology gaps on its own.

Dawn Meyerriecks, the outgoing assistant director of national intelligence for acquisition, technology and facilities in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), says that the community will work with industry on the development of most key technologies, and the government will perform the systems engineering necessary to bring the innovations into a useful, and possibly classified, realm.

“We can’t do this ourselves,” she declares. “We don’t have a choice.”

Meyerriecks explains that the focus on technology investments was defined by a model generated by the office. Research areas were assigned two categories: those where the community had to lead or influence their development; or those which the community could either adapt or adopt. Most of the ODNI’s research and development funding goes to lead/influence technologies, she allows.

One area where the community will depend on industry but will influence development is human language translation, Meyerriecks offers. While the intelligence community has performed significant research in this area, “we don’t have to build all the language translation capability in the planet—lots of people are doing that,” she says. But, some recent research has turned up a useful capability—being able to determine by vocal inflections the person who is the dominant personality in a meeting. The intelligence community will influence developments in that field so that it can take advantage of this new capability.

Among the other unclassified areas that Meyerriecks cites as lead/influence technology priorities are exploitation, video and motion imagery, big data, trust in software and platforms, networks and high-performance computing. For adapt/adopt technologies, she cites cloud computing, visualization, cognitive systems and knowledge management.

In some cases, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) conducts research that complements commercial efforts. Meyerriecks describes IARPA as “a great bellwether of what it is we are investing in as a community,” noting that 34 of its 38 programs are unclassified. She adds that, in one particular unclassified initiative, only 17 of the 70 principal investigators are U.S. citizens, which reflects the global nature of this research.

Budget pressures are affecting the community’s technology thrust, both in terms of capability and necessity. Meyerriecks allows that “we’re not going to hire more analysts, and what we have to do is do a better job.” Technology can help leverage the existing analysts better, she points out.

The ODNI has “made some hard decisions” on its technology priorities by sorting them into categories for production or disinvestment. A disinvestment decision might be made on the basis of a strong industry presence in that area, she notes. But even when the ODNI decides to abandon one particular area, Meyerriecks explains, the office might increase the area’s research and develop investment to preserve a vestigial capability that would allow the community to re-enter that area in the future if necessary. That way, the engineering and science corps would be broad enough to restart development.

Meyerriecks is happy to lean more on the commercial sector, she says, adding that she wishes the community had done it sooner. Calling it “countercultural to the community,” she points out that the technologies that have come out of In-Q-Tel have more than paid for their investments. And, IARPA has 1,200 relationships with universities. Industry is less constrained by security restrictions, and its researchers think differently about solving problems than do their counterparts in government, Meyerriecks offers.

Large companies can help by providing big data analytics for the intelligence community’s style of data, for example. Intelligence community personnel would customize the toolsets for their own applications. “There is a division of labor here that is perfect once we get through the inflection point,” she declares.

Other areas that can benefit from outside research are identity intelligence and new phenomenologies for collection, she adds. “We have to think about bringing multiple things to bear, so multiple phenomenologies are another area that is going to be really important to us.”

Next month, Meyerriecks will leave the ODNI to become deputy director for science and technology at the Central Intelligence Agency.