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In cyber's 'pre-9-11 moment,' intell agencies turn to automation

In the face of tight budgets and flat spending on technology, the intelligence community will focus resources on three areas seen as essential for performing its mission, according to Stephanie O'Sullivan of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The areas seen as critical are research and development, cyber technology and workforce development, said O’Sullivan, the office’s principal deputy director of national intelligence.

Sullivan, speaking recently at the Security Innovation Network Showcase in Washington, D.C., said this focus represents a change in strategy from an early period of belt-tightening that left intelligence agencies weakened after the Cold War. In the 1990s, budget cuts were dealt with across the board, with a little bit coming out of every program. All capabilities were maintained, but at a reduced level.

As a result, she said, the country was caught unprepared by terrorist attacks such as the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“This is a pre-9-11 moment” for the United States in cyberspace, O’Sullivan said, echoing earlier remarks from Defense Secretary and former CIO Director Leon Panetta. To avoid the same mistakes, the intelligence community will think strategically in making budget cuts, eliminating what it can do without to bolster what is essential. “We are going to cut whole programs and stop doing some things,” she said. “We will have less capability.”

The goal is to have the capabilities to deal with an increasingly information-driven, automated world. Big data is the new watchword in science and intelligence — both national and industrial — and agencies need the ability to analyze huge amounts of data being gathered from numerous disparate sources, stored in a variety of places and formats, and used in a distributed environment.

Agencies, lacking an unlimited budget for manpower to do this analysis, will need the technology to automate the job of initial analysis and flagging critical intelligence for humans to look at.

R&D will enable agencies to make better use of available money by advancing and influencing the development of commercial products that can be used by intelligence agencies more cheaply than tools built in-house, O’Sullivan said. Some in-house development will be needed for functionality that has little commercial demand, such as equipment ruggedized for use in harsh environments, tools for working with rare languages, and advanced power systems that can support equipment being used remotely.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency is the home of much of this activity, supporting research on high-risk, high-pay-off projects. Another key program in this area is the Intelligence Community Enterprise Architecture. The enterprise architecture is an effort to develop a communitywide infrastructure to help agencies make better use of financial and informational resources, and enable the automated analysis of data and subsequent alerts.

Technology advances will not eliminate the need for humans who will analyze and use data, however. Budget cuts in the 1990s left agencies short of manpower, O’Sullivan said. Investments will be made in identifying and developing employees with the technical skills and expertise required to operate in an increasingly automated and technology-dependent environment.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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