The sheer amount of data flooding national security agencies poses both challenges and opportunities to the intelligence community, argued the nation’s top geospatial intelligence experts at a conference Sept. 14.
Returning for its fourth year, the George T. Kalaris Intelligence Conference hosted by Georgetown University and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency gathered government officials, scholars, students and featured NGA Director Robert Cardillo (GRD ’88) and Major General Linda Urrutia-Varhall, NGA director of operations.
The conference, “Global Intelligence Trends: Embracing Paradigm Shifts,” featured a panel of guests who analyzed the way increased access to larger and more varied datasets is changing how the United States acquires and uses intelligence.
Georgetown Center for Security Studies Director Bruce Hoffman said the three panels featured as part of the event addressed the potential advantages and difficulties posed by the transition to increasingly data-based intelligence work.
“The big paradigm shift was big data, and how to harness the information revolution and both the potentialities that it has in doing intelligence better, but also the challenges of just dealing with this onslaught of information that intelligence analysts and operators have to wade through,” Hoffman said in an interview with The Hoya.
Cardillo said the spread of information through the internet has changed the role of the NGA, a national security intelligence agency dedicated to mapping and geographical intelligence.
“We find ourselves in quite an interesting global landscape, and we could touch any part of that globe and talk about the challenges and the opportunities that exist,” Cardillo said. “For my profession, in my agency, it imposes a particular responsibility, one in which we need to apply our capabilities in ways that inform those that rely upon us.”
Hoffman said that, just as data can be used for intelligence operations, it can also be used by U.S. adversaries to radicalize populations and undermine the U.S. agenda.
“A lot of the technology that, in the 20th century, was in the domain of governments has migrated to the world at large,” Hoffman said. “So it’s benefited the general public and broad populations, but it’s also been seized upon by the terrorists as a weapon to use against us.”
Hoffman said Islamist terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria demonstrate how technology and big data have spread to more than just American allies.
“ISIS now is using commercial, off-the-shelf drones to drop bombs,” Hoffman said. “They’re not like the Predator, or the Reaper, which are very sophisticated UAVs. But nonetheless, they’re aping us, which I think underscores that terrorism doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and sometimes leverages off of developments in society.”
Urrutia-Varhall analyzed how the intelligence community has evolved, saying larger amounts of information have allowed agents to focus on multiple issues.
“When I came in, I looked at the world, and it was a puzzle. And I had a piece of a puzzle that went into one specific location. For intel right now, it’s a mosaic,” Urrutia-Varhall said in an interview with The Hoya. “I am looking at terrorism. I am looking at North Korea. I’m looking at Russia doing an exercise. I’m looking at the technology for China. I’m looking at Iran missiles. I’m looking at Boko Haram, who’s kidnapped some young girls.”
Despite the potential of technology and data, understaffing in the intelligence community has limited agencies’ abilities, Urrutia-Varhall said.
“The resources, they’re going down,” Urrutia-Varhall said. “Doesn’t matter whether it’s a civilian agency. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the military. We have less people to do more work.”
Urrutia-Varhall said that obtaining data is the first step in analyzing it to determine its authenticity and usefulness.
“It’s not the race to collect big data. It’s the race to make sense of that big data,” Urrutia-Varhall said. “And now we’re on an even playing field, with commercial imagery. It’s shareable, and it’s plentiful. Well, guess what? The image I’m getting, the terrorist is getting the same thing. They could be feeding that image. How do I, at NGA, ensure that’s real? That that’s not a decoy?”
Still, this challenge should not deter the United States from leading the fight against threats through the use of information, Urrutia-Varhall said.
“As the U.S., we can’t give up our time to lead. We have to empower our international partners to step forward, so that we become — we do this together, because nobody’s going to fight alone anymore,” Urrutia-Varhall said.