Cloak & Dagger IT

CIA-funded venture capital firm In-Q-Tel is investing in new technologies that will benefit both the agency and corporate IT.

Q , the legendary gadgeteer of the James Bond films, gave Agent 007 things like a radio transmitter hidden in a hairbrush, artificial skin fingerprints and a fountain pen that doubled as a listening device.

Today, it's more likely that Q would give the master spy a personal digital assistant with self-protecting data, a device for encrypting fingerprint profiles and software for detecting collusion among criminals. In fact, those very items - and a great deal more technospookery - are making their way from Silicon Valley to the CIA, thanks to a bold, year-old experiment in government procurement. The idea is to move U.S. agents into the 21st century, but a side benefit is likely to be the creation of powerful and secure commercial tools for information acquisition, analysis and distribution.

The bridge between technology developers, the CIA and users in corporate America is In-Q-Tel Inc., a nonprofit venture capital firm created by the CIA in late 1999. Armed with $28.5 million in spy agency money, In-Q-Tel (the Q is for Bond creator Ian Fleming's fictional inventor) last year considered some 500 vendor pitches and funded about a dozen development projects.

"We have succeeded at luring companies to come in and show us stuff that even we are shocked by," says Christopher Tucker, chief strategist at the Arlington, Va.-based firm. "Often, these weird solutions are only weird because they are new. As soon as you see them, you think, 'My God, everyone is going to do that.' But right now, only some narrow niche industry uses it, or maybe some little company hasn't even announced it yet."

Taking a Gamble

One such "niche industry" is that of gambling. Systems Research and Development (SRD) in Las Vegas developed collusion-detection software that can spot cheaters and card counters by correlating information from multiple sources about relationships and earlier transactions. The software could, for example, warn a casino that a job applicant once shared an address with a known criminal.

The CIA will soon set up a pilot project to see how the SRD system might be adapted to spy work. "What the intelligence process works on is connections," says a senior CIA official who asked not to be named. "So if you have some group of bad guys over here, and you can find one of them, then there's this whole art and science of finding out who he visits, who he's connected to and so on." The software might also find extensive use in industry to aid in fraud detection, the CIA official says. "This is an area where we have some considerable expertise, and we can work quite constructively with SRD."

Although In-Q-Tel may fund new products from scratch, it typically finds existing products that might be useful to the CIA if enhanced - say, for better security - or prototypes that need additional work. To get funded, a technology must hold promise for use in both the CIA and the commercial world.

Search Advances

For example, SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va., has for some time had a commercial search engine called NetOwl that uses natural-language processing rather than keywords to find information. The text-mining tool can deduce that a word is a person's name, an organization or a place.

In-Q-Tel has greatly increased the power of NetOwl by funding enhancements that let it identify events and relationships and create structured data from unstructured text using XML. According to SRA Vice President Hatte Blejer, it could find on the Internet the answer to this question: "Which high-tech companies were established in Northern Virginia last year?" That's something an ordinary search engine would find difficult at best.

Conventional search engines are fine for looking for bargains on digital cameras, the CIA official says, but not for the kinds of rigorous searches that analysts at the CIA and many private firms want to do.

"There are more than 1,000 newspapers online, but it's hard to read 1,000 newspapers," the CIA official says. The work on NetOwl - and other technologies the CIA won't talk about yet - will make that possible, he says. "We are going to make a big push in the whole area of Internet search, Internet data mining, foreign language search and translation and so on," he says.

"Intelligence analysts and corporate intelligence analysts are typically working on a particular area," says Paul A. Strassmann, a former CIO who is adjunct professor of information warfare at the National Defense University in Washington and a Computerworld columnist. "What they want to do is compile a workbook and capture into that workbook things that don't necessarily have keywords." Analysts want to have a dialogue with their search engines and want them to learn in a Socratic process, he says. Popular commercial search engines are "feeble" by that standard, he adds.

In-Q-Tel was the brainchild of Ruth David, the CIA's deputy director for science and technology from 1995 to 1998. "When I joined the agency, one of the things that became rapidly clear was, by virtue of being government and having a culture of secrecy, people were pretty insulated from the state of the art in IT," says David, now CEO of Analytic Services Inc. in Arlington, Va. The agency was used to working with big defense contractors but not the newer, smaller firms where much of the IT innovation was coming from, she says.

The CIA official, who has ties to In-Q-Tel, says the notion of a top-secret agency funding people without security clearances was hard for many at the CIA to swallow. "There was some jealousy and some suspicion," the official says. "Any organization that gets paid to be paranoid is going to be a little suspicious." But a consensus in favor of In-Q-Tel has emerged at the agency. "We have turned a lot of minds, and we have established credibility, but there are still people who are not sure," says the official.

Briefings Go Online

In-Q-Tel will help move the CIA out of a paper-dominated world, the official says. The agency took its first step in that direction when it teamed with In-Q-Tel-funded companies to develop the Presidential Intelligence Briefing System (PIDS), which is used to produce the daily brief for 16 senior government officials. Formerly, CIA analysts read and shuffled hundreds of paper intelligence cables each day in order to produce the daily brief.

Now PIDS, a "briefer's portal," brings the cables into a Lotus Notes database, performs a variety of searching and analysis functions, and then puts the brief on a notebook computer. PIDS is built around Notes Release 5, NetOwl and a prototype document annotation tool developed by Fuji Xerox Co. in Tokyo.

Lou Clark, a program manager at In-Q-Tel, says PIDS delivers briefs that are more timely because information can be added easily at the last minute. And because the notebooks can hold a lot of background information, briefers can answer questions on the spot, rather than having to return to the CIA to dig for answers, he says. PIDS will be developed into a commercial product, Clark says, but he declines to give details. He says it will find use in organizations with analysts who must find, organize and present data from multiple sources.

And there are many such organizations, David says. "We are all facing the challenge of analyzing and fusing data, spotting anomalies and trends and natural-language processing," she says. "The whole litany of topics relevant to intelligence problems are relevant to many commercial problems as well."

Mobile Security

The CIA is clearly mindful of the dangers of analysts traveling with computers loaded with top-secret material, and portable-device security will be a major concern for In-Q-Tel in the coming months.

"The nightmare is, you travel to some city, you go out to dinner, and someone breaks into your hotel room and puts a little thing into your computer," the CIA official says. "You come back from dinner none the wiser, and from that day forward, your computer is completely compromised."

Security work will involve tamper detection, biometric authentication, cryptography, self-protecting data, secure enterprise storage and more, the official says. The CIA is working jointly with the National Security Agency in some of those areas, he adds.

The In-Q-Tel-sponsored security technology will be commercially available, the official says. "But how can that be? Won't people figure out how to reverse-engineer it and defeat it?" he asks. "That's a challenge, but the right approach will be like public cryptography. It can be totally public and very secure."

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