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Virtual Spying

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By Anne Laurent May 2, 2008

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Lisa Porter, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity suggests in an interview that one way for intelligence agencies to better comb the tsunami of data they now collect is by using virtual worlds. She doesn't elaborate in her Q&A in the May issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine, but IARPA already has a project underway to collect data about virtual worlds.

IARPA is the intelligence version of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where, incidentally, Porter once worked. In the interview, she discusses the new tripartite organization for IARPA. Its three program offices are Smart Collection, Incisive Analysis, and Safe and Secure Operations. The agency lives in the Office of Science and Technology at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

IARPA recently announced it will be snooping around the virtual world via a foxy little project called Reynard, a fox who is the hero of Medieval satires about social manners and classes. It's a study of emerging social dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games being conducted by the Incisive Analysis program.

Porter told the magazine that she is looking for people to run projects within the agency's three programs. IARPA is designed to do high-risk, high-payoff advanced intelligence research, so she is looking for "very smart people who understand what it takes not just to technically comprehend a problem but how to bring an idea to reality programmatically," she said.

The IARPA.gov Web site soon will carry instructions and forms for applying to run projects there.

IARPA will cooperate with DARPA and work closely with In-Q-Tel, the intelligence community's venture capital fund, even though In-Q-Tel's focus is near-term, high-risk problems, Porter said.

IARPA's current location -- on the University of Maryland campus, albeit in a fenced and guarded National Security Agency compound -- is intended to signal the agency's openness to academics and others outside the intel world whose ideas and skills could help solve huge problems such as sorting through data, figuring out how to better target and winnow what intel agencies collect and how to keep that information safe in the Web-enabled world.

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