Debating Big Data for Intelligence

I’m always afraid of engaging in a “battle of wits” only half-armed.  So I usually choose my debate opponents judiciously.

Unfortunately, I recently had a contest thrust upon me with a superior foe: my friend Mark Lowenthal, Ph.D. from Harvard, an intelligence community graybeard (literally!) and former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence (ADCI) for Analysis and Production, Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council – and as if that weren’t enough, a past national Jeopardy! “Tournament of Champions” winner.

As we both sit on the AFCEA Intelligence Committee and have also collaborated on a few small projects, Mark and I have had occasion to explore one another’s biases and beliefs about the role of technology in the business of intelligence. We’ve had several voluble but collegial debates about that topic, in long-winded email threads and over grubby lunches. Now, the debate has spilled onto the pages of SIGNAL Magazine, which serves as something of a house journal for the defense and intelligence extended communities.

SIGNAL Editor Bob Ackerman suggested a “Point/Counterpoint” short debate on the topic: “Is Big Data the Way Ahead for Intelligence?” Our pieces are side-by-side in the new October issue, and are available here on the magazine’s site.

Mark did an excellent job of marshalling the skeptic’s view on Big Data, under the not-so-equivocal title, Another Overhyped Fad.”  Below you will find an early draft of my own piece, an edited version of which is published under the title A Longtime Tool of the Community”:

Visit the National Cryptologic Museum in Ft. Meade, Maryland, and you’ll see three large-machine displays, labeled HARVEST and TRACTOR, TELLMAN and RISSMAN, and the mighty Cray XMP-24. They’re credited with helping win the Cold War, from the 1950s through the end of the 1980s. In fact, they are pioneering big-data computers.

Here’s a secret: the Intelligence Community has necessarily been a pioneer in “big data” since inception – both our modern IC and the science of big data were conceived during the decade after the Second World War. The IC and big-data science have always intertwined because of their shared goal: producing and refining information describing the world around us, for important and utilitarian purposes

What do modern intelligence agencies run on? They are internal combustion engines burning pipelines of data, and the more fuel they burn the better their mileage. Analysts and decisionmakers are the drivers of these vast engines, but to keep them from hoofing it, we need big data.

Let’s stipulate that today’s big-data mantra is overhyped. Too many technology vendors are busily rebranding storage or analytics as “big data systems” under the gun from their marketing departments. That caricature is, rightly, derided by both IT cognoscenti and non-techie analysts.

I personally get the disdain for machines, as I had the archetypal humanities background and was once a leather-elbow-patched tweed-jacketed Kremlinologist, reading newspapers and HUMINT for my data. I stared into space a lot, pondering the Chernenko-Gorbachev transition. Yet as Silicon Valley’s information revolution transformed modern business, media, and social behavior across the globe, I learned to keep up – and so has the IC. 

Twitter may be new, but the IC is no Johnny-come-lately in big data on foreign targets.  US Government funding of computing research in the 1940s and ‘50s stretched from World War II’s radar/countermeasures battles to the elemental ELINT and SIGINT research at Stanford and MIT, leading to the U-2 and OXCART (ELINT/IMINT platforms) and the Sunnyvale roots of NRO.

In all this effort to analyze massive observational traces and electronic signatures, big data was the goal and the bounty.

War planning and peacetime collection were built on collection of ever-more-massive amounts of foreign data from technical platforms – telling the US what the Soviets could and couldn’t do, and therefore where we should and shouldn’t fly, or aim, or collect. And all along, the development of analog and then digital computers to answer those questions, from Vannevar Bush through George Bush, was fortified by massive government investment in big-data technology for military and intelligence applications.

In today’s parlance big data typically encompasses just three linked computerized tasks: storing collected foreign data (think Amazon’s cloud), finding and retrieving relevant foreign data (Bing or Google), and analyzing connections or patterns among the relevant foreign data (powerful web-analytic tools).

Word CloudThose three Ft. Meade museum displays demonstrate how NSA and the IC pioneered those “modern” big data tasks.  Storage is represented by TELLMAN/RISSMAN, running from the 1960’s throughout the Cold War using innovation from Intel. Search/retrieval were the hallmark of HARVEST/TRACTOR, built by IBM and StorageTek in the late 1950s. Repetitive what-if analytic runs boomed in 1983 when Cray delivered a supercomputer to a customer site for the first time ever.

The benefit of IC early adoption of big data wasn’t only to cryptology – although decrypting enemy secrets would be impossible without it. More broadly, computational big-data horsepower was in use constantly during the Cold War and after, producing intelligence that guided US defense policy and treaty negotiations or verification. Individual analysts formulated requirements for tasked big-data collection with the same intent as when they tasked HUMINT collection: to fill gaps in our knowledge of hidden or emerging patterns of adversary activities.

That’s the sense-making pattern that leads from data to information, to intelligence and knowledge. Humans are good at it, one by one. Murray Feshbach, a little-known Census Bureau demographic researcher, made astonishing contributions to the IC’s understanding of the crumbling Soviet economy and its sociopolitical implications by studying reams of infant-mortality statistics, and noticing patterns of missing data. Humans can provide that insight, brilliantly, but at the speed of hand-eye coordination.

Machines make a passable rote attempt, but at blistering speed, and they don’t balk at repetitive mindnumbing data volume. Amid the data, patterns emerge. Today’s Feshbachs want an Excel spreadsheet or Hadoop table at hand, so they’re not limited to the data they can reasonably carry in their mind’s eye.

To cite a recent joint research paper from Microsoft Research and MIT, “Big Data is notable not because of its size, but because of its relationality to other data.  Due to efforts to mine and aggregate data, Big Data is fundamentally networked.  Its value comes from the patterns that can be derived by making connections between pieces of data, about an individual, about individuals in relation to others, about groups of people, or simply about the structure of information itself.” That reads like a subset of core requirements for IC analysis, whether social or military, tactical or strategic.

The synergy of human and machine for knowledge work is much like modern agricultural advances – why would a farmer today want to trudge behind an ox-pulled plow? There’s no zero-sum choice to be made between technology and analysts, and the relationship between CIOs and managers of analysts needs to be nurtured, not cleaved apart.

What’s the return for big-data spending? Outside the IC, I challenge humanities researchers to go a day without a search engine. The IC record’s just as clear. ISR, targeting and warning are better because of big data; data-enabled machine translation of foreign sources opens the world; correlation of anomalies amid large-scale financial data pinpoint otherwise unseen hands behind global events. Why, in retrospect, the Iraq WMD conclusion was a result of remarkably-small-data manipulation.

Humans will never lose their edge in analyses requiring creativity, smart hunches, and understanding of unique individuals or groups. If that’s all we need to understand the 21st century, then put down your smartphone. But as long as humans learn by observation, and by counting or categorizing those observations, I say crank the machines for all their robotic worth.

Make sure to read both sides, and feel free to argue your own perspective in a comment on the SIGNAL site.

5 Responses

  1. Well, you make a far better case than has been made for spying and collecting. And I get that the human element of protest would be nettlesome to those heaving out the nets across any sea, because collection and analysis are the juicy bits. Though in doing so you present the worrisome absence of human feeling and a genuine explanation of what all this is being done for. That better enter the picture at some point, or you’ll have only Snowden fan clubs and defunded agencies. The enterprise, along with its exciting, shiny machinery, would appear to have fogged up its (hopefully) initial impulse to conduct its searches on behalf of populations all this hopes to protect.

    There is a scene in Orson Welles’ ”The Third Man” when Welles directs Joseph Cotten’s attention to the populus far below on the ground, from their ferris wheel, far above in the sky. He asks if Cotton really gives a fig for those little dots Welles has been poisoning with his tainted black market penicilin.

    Which is to say, if good medicine is altered to pretend to cure what it, in reality, kills, then what have we worked so hard to manufacture. So I ask, if the element of humanity and the human instinct to live free and not be treated criminally when not behaving criminally is present in the species of which you are a part and among whom you live and whom you seek to protect, why leave hearts pounding for freedom and privacy out of your equasion. That, even on the frontiers of thrilling exploration of endless possibilties, to me seems uncommonly unkind.

    • Hi Sparhawk – thanks for the thoughtful reply. I agree with your argument for the importance of lawful restraint – not only understanding and respecting that balance, but even better _explaining_ activities within the context of legal government restraint and authorities. That’s the Jeffersonian in me, I’m against any form of tyranny over the mind of man.

      • Hello Shepherd. It was a great read, I don’t usually come in contact with the generators of these programs. There’s an imperative, a serious need to protect a nation. I think America has been sorrowfully impressed by the overload, a growing sense that it is frivolous by its mass. What does anyone suggest, can it be reigned in so that the Jeffersonian in all of us is not so wounded. Why is it legal for supermarkets to set up cameras and sensors for intel gathering, for instance, not just shop security. How on earth did Google go unstopped mapping & photographing every street and home. We are a population without defenders, despite all the defense.

  2. Two very smart fellows who keep the wheels turning within the Big Data realm of Big Intelligence, something that is so important to our country and it’s well being. Our ability to maintain a lead over our adversaries is dependent upon the continuing data mining of relevant information wherever it is found…..Knowing where to look is 90% of the answer.

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