NSA seeks better analysis technologies

The National Security Agency is looking for analysis software to help it sort through the immense amount of data it collects, according to Eric Haseltine, research director for the National Security Agency. Today's commercial intelligence software isn't powerful enough to do the job, he said.

To help find or develop new analysis software, NSA announced that it awarded a one-year contract, worth $445,000, to the Chesapeake Innovation Center of Annapolis, Md., to seek out information assurance technologies and what Haseltine called 'informatics' software.

Haseltine spoke at a meeting of the Technology Council of Anne Arundel County, Md., on Tuesday.

NSA is experiencing a vast increase in the amount and types of data it must monitor, Haseltine said. New communications mediums such as instant messaging, cellular telephones and Web pages flood the organization. But when NSA invited a representative from a large Silicon Valley-based relational database mining company to discuss ways of ingesting this data, the agency found the company had little to offer.

'We told him our problems and he said 'That's way beyond anything we can do,'' Haseltine said.

Haseltine described informatics as software that gathers individual bits of information from many sources and assembles them to produce 'actionable knowledge.'

'In our business, actionable knowledge is someone we need to get before they get us,' he said.

The biggest challenge for NSA is unstructured data'or any data that resides outside of databases. Haseltine envisions software that can distinguish among people, places, events and time in a Word document. The software should be able to relate these data entities to those in other documents and produce a summary of the combined elements.

Haseltine also called for software that could pinpoint trends buried within large datasets, using a minimum of data. He likened this process to how astronomers find planets in other solar systems that can not be viewed through telescopes. They record individual photon activity, or 'tiny little signals' for extended periods of time.

'In other words, if you listen to extremely faint signals over a large period of time, [it will] tell you things,' Haseltine said. 'We call that `turning volume into your friend.''

To help NSA find this technology, the Chesapeake Innovation Center will investigate new and developing technologies from companies and universities, said John Elstner, CEO of the CIC. The center will also work with systems integrators to get these technologies embedded in larger NSA systems, he said.

Like other agencies, NSA is courted by vendors who tout their products' technical capabilities. Elstner said the center will help NSA get beyond 'the vendor buzz,' and refine the search to meet NSA's specific needs.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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