When Public Meets Private in Intelligence

Today’s the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland, the sequence of events which wound up bringing me from Silicon Valley to Washington DC in 2002, and a stint working in the Intelligence Community. I notice today that no one asks me anymore, as they often did at first back then, why I was so intent on bridging the gap between DC and the Valley (broadly, not geographically, defined).

Today it surprises few when we do something unorthodox like invite Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos to appear inside an intelligence agency earlier this year, for a probing one-on-one at the AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium with several hundred IC professionals about the rapid changes in technology, views on public/private collaboration, and the impacts of AI and robotics on his business and theirs.

That rapid pace of change continues to accelerate, following its own Moore’s-Law-like curve, and daily one sees a blurring between how “intelligence” is performed in government uses and out among the public. To wit, check out this article from early August:

News Item: BuzzFeed News Trained A Computer To Search For Hidden Spy Planes. This Is What We Found … Surveillance aircraft often keep a low profile: The FBI, for example, registers its planes to fictitious companies to mask their true identity. So BuzzFeed News trained a computer to find them by letting a machine-learning algorithm sift for planes with flight patterns that resembled those operated by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security… First we made a series of calculations to describe the flight characteristics of almost 20,000 planes in the four months of Flightradar24 data: their turning rates, speeds and altitudes flown, the areas of rectangles drawn around each flight path, and the flights’ durations. We also included information on the manufacturer and model of each aircraft, and the four-digit squawk codes emitted by the planes’ transponders. Then we turned to an algorithm called the “random forest,” training it to distinguish between the characteristics of two groups of planes: almost 100 previously identified FBI and DHS planes, and 500 randomly selected aircraft. The random forest algorithm makes its own decisions about which aspects of the data are most important. But not surprisingly, given that spy planes tend to fly in tight circles, it put most weight on the planes’ turning rates. We then used its model to assess all of the planes, calculating a probability that each aircraft was a match for those flown by the FBI and DHS… The algorithm was not infallible: Among other candidates, it flagged several skydiving operations that circled in a relatively small area, much like a typical surveillance aircraft. But as an initial screen for candidate spy planes, it proved very effective. In addition to aircraft operated by the US Marshals and the military contractor Acorn Growth Companies, covered in our previous stories, it highlighted a variety of planes flown by law enforcement, and by the military and its contractors. Some of these aircraft use technologies that challenge our assumptions about when and how we’re being watched, tracked, or listened to. It’s only by understanding when and how these technologies are used from the air that we’ll be able to debate the balance between effective law enforcement, national security, and individual privacy.”

It has become commonplace to observe the dwindling distinctions in use of so-called “intelligence capabilities” between longstanding government intelligence agencies and so-called private-sector companies, e.g. news outlets or social-media platforms.  For a tour-de-force expression and stirring point-of-view argument you will profit from reading John Lanchester’s new and epic book-review essay “You Are the Product” in the London Review of Books, in which he treats Google, Microsoft, Facebook and the like with a critical lens and concludes:

[E]ven more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company….”

A short blog piece is not the place to examine fully this rich topic, but it is a good place to point out that I enjoy spending time helping all sides of this divide understand each other. By all sides, I mean government entities and officers (including intelligence and law enforcement), private-sector companies, and most importantly the public citizenry and customer base of those organizations. A great forum for doing that has been AFCEA, which this past week co-hosted with INSA the annual Intelligence and National Security Summit in DC. Along with helping oversee the agenda I had the opportunity to organize one of the panel sessions with my old friend (and former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence) Carmen Medina.

Our panel – very relevant to the above discussion – was on “The Role of Intelligence in the Future Threat Environment,” and our excellent participants addressed some gnarly problems. I tweeted many of the comments and observations (see my hashtagged feed here), and you can find more content and videos from all 15 sessions archived here.

Your suggestions on new approaches to these dialogues are welcome as always. As we commemorate the horrific surprise attacks of 9/11/2001, in a rapidly changing world where real-time surveillance is performed by more and more entities, governmental and commercial, it is increasingly important to engage in thoughtful – and sometimes urgent – discussion about who watches whom, and why.

 

 

 

 

Coming to DC, One-Day Delivery from Jeff Bezos

If you read this blog you care about government and technology. And whether you’re a technologist or not, you can see the tech forces shaping and sharpening the uses of digital capabilities in accomplishing the ends of government, whether that’s citizen-service delivery and local law enforcement, or global diplomacy and nation-state combat. I’ve worked on and written about them all – from intelligence to space to AI, or the quantification of Supreme Court humor, even “Punk Rock and Moore’s Law.”

Understanding and forecasting that radical pace of external change is difficult for government professionals, and they need help doing that. Let’s say you wanted to tap someone to offer insight. Who’d be on your dream list? At the top of my dream list – my absolute “if-only-I-could-ask” list – would be Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin.

So I’m going to sit down with Jeff Bezos on stage later this month, at the annual AFCEA Intelligence Symposium, for a conversation about areas where technology critically intersects with the nation’s response to enduring challenges and opportunities, such as artificial intelligence, digital innovation, the revolution in cloud computing, and commercial space operations. (Alongside my day job at Deloitte, I serve as national Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee at AFCEA, the 35,000-member Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association.)

photo: AFCEA Symposium Invitation

The 2017 Symposium features, as usual, a stellar line-up of top leaders in national security, with panels on Advanced Conventional Threats, the Contested Environment of Space, Terrorism, Cyber Threats from Nation-States and Non-State Entities, and Gray-Zone Conflicts/Hybrid Warfare (topic of last year’s Defense Science Board study on which I sat). All sessions feature senior thought-leaders from government and industry.

Jeff Bezos might be new in that particular mix, but you can understand why we invited him. He has been TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year (early in his career in 1999), Fortune Magazine’s Businessperson of the Year, topped the Forbes annual list of “World’s Greatest Leaders,” and our rationale for this conversation is his long track record of revolutionary contributions to international technological/economic advance, as well as to US national security. AWS is now of central importance to the public sector (including intelligence), and the broader contributions of Amazon and Blue Origin to the nation’s economic future and success are incalculable.

Jeff Bezos Space

 

If you have a Top Secret/SI/TK clearance, you can attend the Symposium – register. [Update: sorry, 2017 Symposium = sold out]

There’s a longstanding meme that government should be “run like a business.” I typically don’t think in precisely those terms, having been on both sides and recognizing the significant differences in intent and stakeholders.

photo: Lewis Shepherd; Gen. “Wheels” Wheeler (Ret.) of DIUx; Russell Stern, CEO Solarflare

Panel on Defense Innovation and DIUx

I’ve been more interested in helping each sector understand the unique contributions of the other, and the complexities inherent in their relationship. (See for example my recent post on DoD Innovation and DIUx in Silicon Valley.)

But the “run government like a business” impetus is understandable here in the United States as a reflection of dissatisfaction with government performance in meeting its own goals, and the expectations of the citizens it serves. President Trump recently assigned Jared Kushner to lead a new White House Office of American Innovation, and Kushner told the Washington Post “We should have excellence in government. The government should be run like a great American company.” Graph - Govt like a BusinessThe Washington Post (coincidentally owned by, yes, Jeff Bezos) ran a piece exploring the history of that thinking, dating its surge in popularity to the early 1980s under President Reagan – a timeline borne out by running the phrase through Google’s Ngram Viewer (see chart).

The last time I invited a smart young billionaire to come speak to Intelligence Community leaders, it worked out pretty well for the audience (see Burning Man and AI: What Elon Musk told me and the role of Art). So I’m aiming even higher this year…

If you don’t have a Top Secret clearance, you can’t get into the Symposium, and won’t be able to hear Bezos firsthand on April 27. But here’s a substitute, nearly as good: this week Bezos published his annual Letter to Shareholders of Amazon. Most people in the business world know about his legendary 1997 “first annual letter to shareholders” in which he laid out an extraordinary long-term vision for his company. The 2017 version is also extraordinary, and I urge you to read it in full. My friend Jeff Jonas, former IBM Chief Scientist for Context Computing and now founder/Chief Scientist at Senzing, calls it “the most impressive annual letter to shareholders I’ve ever read; this line of thinking leads to greatness.”

– – – – –

For some parting eye-candy, here’s video from last week’s annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where attendees got a first-hand look at the historic Blue Origin New Shepard rocket booster (first to land vertically after spaceflight, first to relaunch again, and now a five-time-reuse trophy), and an inside tour of the crew capsule with “the largest windows in space travel.”

 

 

Docere et Facere, To Teach and To Do

“Helping aspiring data scientists forge their own career paths, more universities are offering programs in data science or analytics.” – Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2017

George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman provides the maxim, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” Most of us know this as “Those who can’t do, teach.” (And Woody Allen added a punch line in Annie Hall: “… and those who can’t teach, teach gym.”)

I’m determined both to do and to teach, because I enjoy each of them. When it comes to data and advanced analytics, something I’ve been using or abusing my entire career, I’m excited about expanding what I’m doing. So below I’m highlighting two cool opportunities I’m engaging in now…

 

Teaching Big Data Architectures and Analytics in the IC

I’ve just been asked by the government to teach again a popular graduate course I’ve been doing for several years, “Analytics: Big Data to Information.” It’s a unique course, taught on-site for professionals in the U.S. intelligence community, and accredited by George Mason University within GMU’s Volgenau Graduate School of Engineering. My course is the intro Big Data course for IC professionals earning a master’s or Ph.D. from GMU’s Department of Information Sciences and Technology, as part of the specialized Directorate for Intelligence Community Programs.

I enjoy teaching enormously, not having done it since grad school at Stanford a million years ago (ok, the ’80s). The students in the program are hard-working data scientists, technologists, analysts, and program managers from a variety of disciplines within the IC, and they bring their A-game to the classroom. I can’t share the full syllabus, but here’s a summary:

This course is taught as a graduate-level discussion/lecture seminar, with a Term Paper and end-of-term Presentation as assignments. Course provides an overview of Big Data and its use in commercial, scientific, governmental and other applications. Topics include technical and non-technical disciplines required to collect, process and use enormous amounts of data available from numerous sources. Lectures cover system acquisition, law and policy, and ethical issues. It includes discussions of technologies involved in collecting, mining, analyzing and using results, with emphasis on US Government environments.

I worry that mentioning this fall’s class now might gin up too much interest (last year I was told the waiting list had 30+ students who wanted to get in but couldn’t, and I don’t want to expand beyond a reasonable number), but when I agreed this week to offer the course again I immediately began thinking about the changes in the syllabus I may make. And I solicit your input in the comments below (or by email).

math-1500720_960_720.jpgFor the 2016 fall semester, I had to make many changes to keep up with technological advance, particularly in AI. I revamped and expanded the “Machine Learning Revolution” section, and beefed up the segments on algorithmic analytics and artificial intelligence, just to keep pace with advances in the commercial and academic research worlds. Several of the insights I used came from my onstage AI discussion with Elon Musk in 2015, and his subsequent support for the OpenAI initiative.

More importantly I provided my students (can’t really call them “kids” as they’re mid-career intelligence officials!) with tools and techniques for them to keep abreast of advances outside the walls of government – or those within the walls of non-U.S. government agencies overseas. So I’m going to have to do some work again this year, to keep the course au courant, and your insight is welcome.

But as noted at the beginning, I don’t want to just teach gym – I want to be athletic. So my second pursuit is news on the work front.

 

Joining an elite Mission Analytics practice

I’m announcing what I like to think of as the successful merger of two leading consultancies: my own solo gig and Deloitte Consulting. And I’m even happy Deloitte won the coin-toss to keep its name in our merger 🙂

For the past couple of years I have been a solo consultant and I’ve enjoyed working with some tremendous clients, including government leaders, established tech firms, and great young companies like SpaceX and LGS Innovations (which traces its lineage to the legendary Bell Labs).

But working solo has its limitations, chiefly in implementation of great ideas. Diagnosing a problem and giving advice to an organization’s leadership is one thing – pulling together a team of experts to execute a solution is entirely different. I missed the camaraderie of colleagues, and the “mass-behind-the-arrowhead” effect to force positive change.

When I left Microsoft, the first phone call I got was from an old intelligence colleague, Scott Large – the former Director of NRO who had recently joined Deloitte, the world’s leading consulting and professional services firm. Scott invited me over to talk. It took a couple of years for that conversation to culminate, but I decided recently to accept Deloitte’s irresistible offer to join its Mission Analytics practice, working with a new and really elite team of experts who understand advanced technologies, are developing new ones, and are committed to making a difference for government and the citizens it serves.

Our group is already working on some impressively disruptive solutions using massive-scale data, AI, and immersive VR/AR… it’s wild. And since I know pretty much all the companies working in these spaces, I decided to go with the broadest, deepest, and smartest team, with the opportunity for highest impact.

Who could turn down the chance to teach, and to do?

 

Twitter Search as a Government case study

In addition to periodic think-pieces here at Shepherd’s Pi, I also contribute a monthly online column over at SIGNAL Magazine on topics relating to intelligence. This month I keyed off a recent discussion I had onstage at the 2015 AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium with Elon Musk, particularly a colloquy we had on implications of the emerging cleavage (post-Edward Snowden) between Silicon Valley technology companies and their erstwhile innovation partners, U.S. intelligence agencies.

Continue reading

Intelligence, Artificial and Existential

"Not to Be or Not to Be?" artwork by Shuwit, http://shuwit.deviantart.com/

“Not to Be or Not to Be?” artwork by Shuwit, http://shuwit.deviantart.com/

I just published a short piece over at SIGNAL Magazine on an increasingly public debate over artificial intelligence, which the editor gave a great Shakespearean title echoing Hamlet’s timeless question “To be, or not to be”: Continue reading

Meet the Future-Makers

Question: Why did Elon Musk just change his Twitter profile photo? I notice he’s now seeming to evoke James Bond or Dr. Evil:

twitter photos, Elon v Elon

I’m not certain, but I think I know the answer why. Read on… Continue reading

Young Americans and the Intelligence Community

IC CAE conferenceA few days ago I travelled down to Orlando – just escaping the last days of the DC winter. I was invited to participate in a conference hosted by the Intelligence Community’s Center of Academic Excellence (IC CAE) at the University of Central Florida.  The title of my speech was “The Internet, 2015-2025: Business and Policy Challenges for the Private Sector.” But I actually learned as much as I taught, maybe more. Continue reading

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