Revealing E-Mail's Secrets

Tool lets analysts create a picture of communicators and can be used to fight terrorists and help businesses
With the threat of terrorism high, the intelligence community is investing in technology that can help analysts quickly examine communications, particularly E-mailed messages, in order to spot suspected terrorists. Backed by In-Q-Tel, the CIA's technology incubator, Spotfire Inc. this week will introduce a tool for uncovering patterns and relationships in information extracted from E-mail messages that will be as useful for anti-terrorism efforts as it will be for analyzing business data.

Homegrown programs and text-mining tools are available from a variety of vendors to extract data about an E-mail and information contained within a message. Spotfire's product, DecisionSite for Email Analysis, goes to work on that data and presents the results in tables or grids with different-sized splotches of color that indicate data patterns. DecisionSite's Email Portfolio feature allows analysts to store and link E-mail addresses and any other attributes to build a detailed picture of communicators and their activities. E-mail messages 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, CEO Christopher Ahlberg says.

In-Q-Tel first 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.

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's 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 the company's visualization technology as a breakthrough for E-mail analysis. "We identified Spotfire as a leader in the visualization" market, he says. That 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.

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 amount of 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.

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."