Intell community's new problem: Sharing too much data

After a Nigerian man attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, critics and the media accused intelligence agencies of still being in silos and not sharing information.

But that wasn’t the case, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, told a Washington audience recently.

The issue was not the lack of information sharing. “The issue was we couldn’t deal with the volume of information we were sharing,” said Hayden, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009 and is currently a principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy.

Related coverage:

CIA venture arm targets a secure cloud platform

CIA wants big data, petascale computing to speed info analysis

“There is so much data coming at us, we are now challenged by the volume of what’s coming at us” rather than being engaged in bureaucratic turf wars over sharing information, Hayden told industry and government representatives attending the SAP National Security Services (NS2) Solutions Summit in Falls Church, VA, Sept 18th.

The intelligence community needs technology that aids analysts in understanding the complexities of a changing world and empowers them to make even more informed decisions, Hayden said.

Putting the current global situation in context, he listed five major national security concerns that, incidentally, were the top concerns when he left the government three years ago, he noted.

They are: the Iranian nuclear program, the emergence of China as a global player (China doesn’t have to be an enemy, Hayden said), transnational crime in Mexico, cyber defense, and terrorism.

An era of globalization has chipped away against the power of the state and pushed power – for good or evil – down to sub-national units, Hayden said. “In the case of terrorism and cyber, you push great destructive potential almost down to the individual level,” he said.

Many companies’ data is being compromised by cyber attacks launched by nation states, Hayden said. And while many citizens might expect their country to play a role in keeping them safe, cybersecurity legislation is not moving very fast and probably will not pass in the current congressional session, he said.

With regard to cyber defense, “we are not quite there in the field in the same way if you were being physically attacked,” because “we haven’t figured out what we want government to do and what we will allow the government to do,” he said.

In light of the current security concerns, here is what the intelligence community wants from the technology industry, Hayden said:

• Don’t build technology for technology’s sake. “Your fundamental task is to enable the analysts,” Hayden said. Make all the complex machines you want, he said, as long as it leads to the analysts doing a better job.

• Figure out how to protect personal information. Hayden said he’s been in front of many congressional committees saying, “‘Trust us. We would never abuse it,’ just doesn’t work in American political culture.” So work on how data can be integrated for detecting threats and segregated for policy and law enforcement reasons, he said.

• Whatever you build, make it affordable.
• Bake security into the technology. Everyone in the intelligence field knew that something like WikiLeaks — which published submissions of secret information, news leaks and classified media from anonymous sources — was inevitable.
Hayden also said the intelligence community has to move beyond the concept of “targeting.” Databases are basically being used today to target people, literally in the sense of putting a weapon on somebody or figuratively by screening who gets on airplanes.

The country has been at war for 11 years and targeting is the dominant thinking in the intelligence community. But it is not the only thing intelligence agencies should be doing, Hayden said. It is not just about targeting, but enabling the analysts to make the right macro decision.

“Keep that in mind as you advance technology,” Hayden said. Data has to be collected, organized and presented in a way that helps the analysts “build as much wisdom as possible to pass on to the policy maker in a world that remains dangerous and is rapidly changing,” Hayden said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected