On Wednesday, the CIA’s chief technology officer detailed the Agency’s vision for collecting and analysing all of the information people put on the Internet.
The wide-ranging presentation at GigaOM’s Structure:Data conference in New York City came two days after it was reported the spy agency is on the verge of signing a cloud computing contract with Amazon — worth up to $600 million over 10 years — that involves Amazon Web Services helping the CIA build a “private cloud” filled with technologies like big data.
After laying out what the CIA does — i.e. collect intelligence, conduct analysis, perform covert action — CIA CTO Ira “Gus” Hunt detailed just how the agency plans to acquire, store, and analyse digital data on a massive scale.
“You’re already a walking sensor platform,” Hunt said, referring to all of the information captured by smartphones. “You are aware of the fact that somebody can know where you are at all times, because you carry a mobile device, even if that mobile device is turned off. You know this, I hope? Yes? Well, you should.”
In fact Hunt noted that based on the sensors in a smartphone, someone can be identified (with 100 per cent accuracy) by the way they walk — implying that someone could be identified even when carrying someone else’s phone.
The challenge for the CIA is to find the relevance is the ocean of information when something happens. The first step is for “data scientists” to save and analyse all digital breadcrumbs — even the ones people don’t know they are creating (i.e. “More is always better”).
“Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever,” Hunt said. “It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information.”
He ends with comments about how the “inanimate is becoming sentient,” how cognitive machines (e.g. Watson) are going to “explode upon us,” and how technology is moving faster than governments, legal systems, and even individuals can keep up.
Combined with the emerging forces, nano, bio, and sensors, big data is driving three things: a dramatic increase in velocity of innovation (because work can be done from scratch); an acceleration of social change (e.g. Arab Spring); and an alteration of the global flow of information (i.e. from the few to the many to the many to the many).
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