U.S. Spy Agencies Go Web 2.0 In Effort To Better Share Information

In December, the DNI will launch A-Space, a portal that will eventually include everything from wikis, blogs, and social networking; built using SOA.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

August 23, 2007

5 Min Read

The Department of National Intelligence is adopting Web 2.0 technologies as part of a quest to overcome decades-old challenges of information sharing.

In December, the DNI will launch A-Space, a portal that will eventually include everything from wikis, blogs, social networking, and personalization to RSS feeds, collaborative Web-based word processing, mash-ups, and content tagging all built atop an underlying services-oriented architecture.

A-Space will begin life as a portal that includes a Web-based word processing tool akin to Google Docs, a wiki-based intelligence community encyclopedia known as Intellipedia and access to three "huge, terabyte databases" of current raw intel for analysts to sift through. It'll be scaled for 10,000 users at day one. By the end of 2008, the DNI hopes to bring in other resources like intelligence blogs, social networking capabilities akin to a Facebook for spooks, secure Web-based e-mail, better search functionality, and much more.

The DNI is going public with its plans for A-Space just as the CIA's Office of the Inspector General puts out a report on the CIA's performance around the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The report, like several others before it, finds that the agency "did not always work effectively and cooperatively" during the months before 9/11. "The failures to share information ... were potentially significant," the report said.

Today, much of the intelligence community has great troubles sharing information among themselves, especially as the sensitivity of information at hand approaches above Top Secret levels. "All of our networks have their own literal firewalls and figurative firewalls," said Mike Wertheimer, assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic transformation and technology. "We're very much disconnected, and the kinds of problems we face today just don't lend themselves anymore to a solution that can live within just one of these networks."

The security challenges of an effort like A-Space are staggering. That in part is why this system is Web-based, rather than a desktop client that has to get 16 different security waivers and move across 16 differently-configured firewalls. However, all this information in the browser, even on the secure intelligence Intranet, is bound to raise hackles. Thus, the spies need watching themselves. One of the ways A-Space will maintain its security will be through observing traffic patterns, the department doing things like looking out for suspiciously anomalous searches. "Let's not be Pollyanna-ish about this," Wertheimer said. "This is a counter-intelligence nightmare. You've got to ask yourself, if there's one bad apple here, how much can that bad apple learn?"

Of course, content is king, and people won't use A-Space unless there's something there for them beyond tools. That's why the site will open with access to the three large databases of current intel and Intellipedia as part of a massive digital library of national intelligence. Eventually, A-Space will be capable of carrying documents several levels above Top Secret, certified at a level that 95% of all intelligence can be stored there. Reports will be able to be tagged with important related words or phrases via a system called TagConnect and labeled by usefulness. It will eventually be able to recommend related documents to analysts, much like Amazon recommends related books. Social networking will be another critical part of A-Space, where analysts can create trusted contacts with other analysts and post profiles that contain updated contact information and details of their areas of expertise. The analysts' areas of expertise may be further defined through text mining software that sifts through analyst e-mail. The social networking model isn't yet set, but the DNI has invited social networking experts the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and vendors to recommend and help develop specs.

The plan for A-Space includes a slew of other Web 2.0 technologies as well. For example, A-Space, with its SOA architecture, will allow analysts and developers to write or install their own widgets onto their portal page. Users will be able to do things like add a Google Maps widget, then attach classified layers to a map that could potentially overlay anti-aircraft missile sites with known bunkers. The intelligence community is already blogging, and A-Space could therefore take advantage of RSS feeds for blog content, among other things. The DNI has even been in talks with IBM about how to put 3-D gaming to work to do analytical problem solving.

Wertheimer said he's learned the lessons of past failures where other agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its virtual case file project, stumbled badly in part because they tried to be too backwards compatible with old information systems. "Five years from now, all that old stuff is irrelevant to analysts anyway," he said. However, he still has major integration challenges ahead. An everything-and-the-kitchen sink approach won't work because it won't give A-Space any sense of coherence.

If all this sounds incredibly expensive, Wertheimer claims it isn't. Keeping costs down is an important goal. "If we are willing to start small, scale cheaply, fail cheaply, and try and solve tomorrow's problems, than I will have succeeded in ways that I've never succeeded in the past," Wertheimer said.

He said it will cost the government "well under $5 million" to start, since the networks and information resources are already there and they just need to be tapped into. Costs will come more from standing up Web servers, acquiring some product licenses -- the DNI wants A-Space to rely somewhat on off-the-shelf software rather than being all expensively custom built -- and figuring out security policies.

Whatever the endpoint, Wertheimer recognizes that his prime goal -- better information sharing -- is one the government and the intelligence community have repeatedly declared necessary for national security. "If we don't start sharing information more, the problems that we have today are only going to get harder," he said.

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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