When the safety and security of an entire nation is at stake, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US needs to be “ahead of the curve”, said Teresa Smetzer, Director of Digital Futures.

It needs to go beyond just reporting on events to actually anticipating the next crisis. The agency’s anticipatory intelligence cell uses machine learning and data science to draw insights from events that had happened in the past, and “report to our policymakers any issues of instability that they might have to deal with”.

“Rather than responding, they are proactively able to understand what they can do to change the situation,” Smetzer said at the recent AWS re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Importance of data

Data is the “lifeblood” of many organisations, whether public and private, said Smetzer. But it has become “increasingly difficult” to process data due to the “enormous volume, variety and velocity of information” that the CIA handles, she noted. This can include structured and unstructured text, video, audio, and images.

It used to take hours or days for agents to search through vast amounts of data; it is now a matter of minutes and seconds, Smetzer continued. “Minutes matter in our world.”

This capability is useful in combating terrorism. Agents can quickly sift through large amounts of very disparate data in minutes, and can either minimise or thwart future attacks. “You hear about the things that we aren’t able to catch, but there are many examples of where we have had stopped events and protected the country and our national security,” she said.

This also applies to data from social media – “the predominant means of communication” worldwide. Agents can carry out sentiment analysis on social media content in a way that lets them look at “instability and factors of concern”, Smetzer said. “It also helps us to understand the authenticity of information,” she added.

International comparisons

Data analysis gives nations a crucial advantage when it comes to public safety. From huge amounts of data, Artificial Intelligence can help police to identify patterns in what may seem to humans like unrelated incidents.

And last year, Singapore Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam noted how the country needed a “data-driven” approach to public safety decision-making. The country intends to use analytics to identify crime hotspots, predict emergencies and deploy police resources.

Meanwhile, cities in New Zealand are using data from city management systems to reduce crime. Wellington, for instance, uses AI algorithms to analyse CCTV footage and sensor data to quickly direct law enforcement or staff to certain areas.

The CIA first began the “very risky” move onto the commercial cloud in 2013, which has helped them to speed up data analysis and searches massively. And since last month, all 16 agencies within the CIA now have the ability to securely interoperate across all levels of data classification: unclassified, sensitive, secret and top secret.

“For the first time, we have a common set of tools, a constant flow of the latest technology, and flexibility to scale rapidly to meet mission demands,” Smetzer said, describing this capability as a “gamechanger for how we execute missions”.

“For the first time, we have a common set of tools, a constant flow of the latest technology, and flexibility to scale rapidly to meet mission demands.”

By taking risks, the agency has successfully enhanced “our efficiencies; our effectiveness; our ability to scale and meet demands; our ability to search in ways that we couldn’t even imagine before we had a cloud capability”, Smetzer pointed out.

Keeping pace with industry

As “the nation’s first line of defence”, it is all the more crucial for the CIA to continue to keep pace with the “culture of continuous innovation” that permeates the private sector. “It is increasingly difficult for the government to do that because the pace of investment and technology changes so dramatically,” Smetzer noted.

The agency ensures it stays ahead of disruption and trends through an innovation outpost in Silicon Valley. “It allows us to essentially innovate with mission engagement to come up with new solutions and strategies,” Smetzer explained.

It has also set up the Intelligence Community marketplace, which allows officials to quickly download, test, evaluate, and buy software from Silicon Valley and beyond. The agency can “leverage the best offerings from industry”, and this “dramatically accelerates our ability to fail cheap, fail quick, which really is critical to stay ahead of the mission challenges we face”, she said.

For agencies such as the CIA, innovation presents a compelling opportunity to improve how they carry out missions on which millions of lives depend. “The ultimate impact for a mission,” Smetzer concluded, “is to make the world a safer place for everyone.”

Image by MAI/Landov