NSA pans for data gold

How do you filter coherent information out of a swiftly flowing river of seemingly undifferentiated bits?

That's the problem the Signals Intelligence Branch at the National Security Agency is struggling with as it overhauls the technical support systems for its intelligence-gathering mission.

Sept. 11 gave extra impetus to NSA's efforts to change systems and people so they can efficiently sift out what matters in the noise of digital network traffic, said Chris Inglis, deputy director for analysis and production.

'We need coherence out of the myriad of communications technologies, so analysts can make sense of it,' Inglis said. 'We can't use analysts to keep up with a 300 percent per year growth in network traffic.'

A shift from reading everything and trying to figure it out to taking and sorting data samples in response to specific demands by analysts would transform NSA, Inglis said.

In a recent presentation to Defense Department workers and vendors, Inglis outlined an information architecture that would support this new style of turning raw data into intelligence. The goal is to have software tools and human beings each do what they do best, but not expect too much from software nor overwhelm people with data.

Such an architecture would have five layers'from signal through data, information, knowledge and intelligence. Inglis acknowledged that the model 'makes something artsy sound scientific.'

The first three layers are software-intensive, requiring automated tools to gather in and sort the raw materials for human analysts to go to work on, mainly at the knowledge and intelligence layers. Inglis described the required tools as 'a coherent application suite to perform noncognitive tasks.'

Agency culture must change for the approach to be feasible, Inglis said, in part because analysts have a history of controlling their technology. At one time, some of them wrote their own machine assembly code, he said.

'People resist this, but we need time spent on strategic goals, not tactical thrills,' Inglis said. 'We need systems engineers, software engineers and program managers as much as Farsi experts and linguists. If not, we will fail.'

NSA is putting money where its mouth is, having approved raises of up to 25 percent for workers in technical disciplines. Inglis said NSA was prepared to hire people even at the GS-15 level for some technical jobs. Plus, the agency wants to establish an acquisition group within its signal directorate for specialists to meet a top software Capability Maturity Model ranking.

That's not to say NSA will get into the business of creating the software itself. It will rely on commercial products, Inglis said.

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