E-Mail Analysis Is Key To Catching Terrorists And Corporate Crooks

Spotfire, financed in part by a CIA technology incubator, is introducing a tool for uncovering patterns and relationships in information extracted from E-mail.

Larry Greenemeier, Contributor

July 27, 2005

4 Min Read

As police in London scramble to analyze information they hope will result in the arrests of people involved in the recent bombings and U.S. law enforcement remains on high alert for terrorist threats here, the intelligence community is investing in new technology to help analysts quickly examine communications among suspected terrorists, particularly E-mailed messages.

Backed by In-Q-Tel, the CIA technology incubator, Spotfire Inc. soon will introduce a tool for uncovering patterns and relationships in information extracted from E-mail that will be as useful for anti-terrorism efforts as it is for corporate data analysis.

Data about an E-mail and information contained within an E-mail can be extracted by homegrown programs and through text-mining tools available from a variety vendors, including other In-Q-Tel-supported vendors such as Basis Technology, MetaCarta, and Stratify. Spotfire's product, DecisionSite for Email Analysis, goes to work on the data and presents the results in tables or grids with different-sized splotches of color that indicate data patterns. DecisionSite's Email Portfolio feature lets an analyst store and link E-mail addresses and any other attributes to build a detailed picture of communicators and their activities. E-mails also can be mapped geographically using a variety of mapping technologies, including ESRI Inc.'s ArcGIS software.

Spotfire is looking to push business intelligence and reporting to the next level for both government agencies and commercial businesses, says CEO Christopher Ahlberg, adding that the intelligence community is a key market for E-mail analysis.

In-Q-Tel approached Spotfire in 2003 when the CIA-backed venture-capital firm was looking to invest in technology that could find critical patterns by translating and analyzing data. "Unstructured information is at the core of the analysis that the intelligence community wants to do," Ahlberg says. This information can come from scanned documents, intercepted E-mails, and digital images.

The challenges of meeting the intelligence community's post-9/11 needs are great. "There's obviously a level of urgency that you're dealing with," Ahlberg says. "There's also a complexity in terms of the information being multilingual, secret, and geographically disbursed."

The mission of In-Q-Tel, which launched in 1999 after a decade in which technology innovators were more interested in the green of Silicon Valley than the red, white, and blue of Washington, D.C., is to foster the development of new and emerging information technologies and pursue research and development that produces solutions to some of the most difficult IT problems facing the CIA. In-Q-Tel has also invested in A4Vision Inc., a provider of 3-D facial-scanning and -recognition software and equipment, as well as multilingual text-mining and information-retrieval software maker Basis Technology, geographic text-search technology provider MetaCarta, and unstructured data-management software maker Stratify.

Although In-Q-Tel is neither part of the CIA nor a government agency, it does receive input from the CIA regarding where it should invest. "We never know if the CIA uses the technology in which we invest," says Eric Kaufmann, In-Q-Tel managing partner and senior VP. "They give us a general direction, such as visualization."

Kaufmann won't say how much In-Q-Tel has invested in Spotfire, but the firm sees Spotfire's visualization technology as a breakthrough technology for E-mail analysis. "We identified Spotfire as a leader in the visualization" market, he says, adding that the E-mail market is important because it's a place where visualization hasn't yet been used. "E-mail has become an increasing part of electronic discovery."

DecisionSite for Email Analysis has the potential to help analysts in the government and in business confirm who's talking with each other via E-mail and how often, says Ed Hart, an IT consultant and a former deputy director at the National Security Agency.

While software that can harvest and graphically represent this data has been around for years, the ease and efficiency of Spotfire's software takes E-mail analysis to a new level of usability. "I had seen it 10 years ago, but it was difficult to use," says Hart, a 30-year veteran of the NSA. "That's why the technology never made it to the marketplace."

The NSA is testing Spotfire's software, Hart says. The amount of data the NSA analyzes daily would fill the Library of Congress, and that's only a small percentage of the data available to the agency. "Any tools that can help them in that analysis process against that total percent of available data is of enormous value because it helps the analysts be selective," he adds. "It's not about taking in more of the stream."

Although Spotfire's technology is being funded in part by a CIA-backed company and the NSA has expressed interest, DecisionSite for Email Analysis could have a much broader appeal that extends to the business world. "Many endeavors, whether in government or private enterprise, have the need to analyze masses of data topical to their area," Hart says. "The application is limited only by the creativity of the person who's trying to apply it."

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