What's Brewin Column: Avoid the Britney results

Intelligence needs advanced Internet search tools to find the most relevant data while bypassing the irrelevant.

Intelligence analysts need "high-fidelity" search tools to separate relevant information from irrelevant information, says Maj. Gen. John Custer, commander of the Army Intelligence Center at Fort. Huachuca, Ariz. Custer spoke this week at the annual Department of Defense Intelligence Information System Conference in San Diego.

That means developing search tools to ensure that when analysts perform an Internet search they don't come up with "a lot of Britney Spears hits," Custer said.

A Google search shows that, indeed, the troubled pop star permeates cyberspace, so much so that she outperforms even George W. Bush in Web hits. The president of the United States garners a mere 32.9 million hits while Britney commands 101 million.

(Full disclosure: I'm pleased to have Britney in this column, as this may just increase my click rate. In a business that lives and dies by clicks, that's good.)

Finding a Needle in a Video Haystack

The Defense Department probably has amassed more miles of videotape from unmanned aerial vehicles and other surveillance platforms in operation over Afghanistan and Iraq during the past five years than all the television networks have in their history, according to an Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity official I talked to at the IARPA booth in San Diego.

The official, who declined to be identified, said Defense and the intelligence community had, until now, no good way of searching terabytes of data, let alone the petabytes of video footage it has archived. That data may be something that would come in handy if tactical units wanted to closely eyeball a spot before mounting an operation there.

Dale Meyerrose, deputy director and chief information officer for National Intelligence, told me searching for the right clip in this mountain of video represents a "real challenge," because "there are years of legacy video data" that have not been indexed or tagged.

Since one UAV mission in Iraq can generate 20 hours of video, developing a means to search archived footage represents a serious problem for intelligence agencies, Grant Schneider, deputy director for information management and chief information officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency, told me.

DIA customers need to access information from multiple sources, including video, Schneider said, and he considers it essential to develop search capabilities. Asked how Defense could possibly do this, Schneider said, "Ask IARPA."

IARPA showcased its application to search video at its booth -- a project called the Video Analysis and Content Extraction system. Ron Krakower, director of business development for vision technologies, told me his company has come up with a way to fine-tune georeferenced data from UAV flights that makes searching for a particular flight -- and points along that flight -- easier.

The video analysis tool has other potential uses, which IARPA did not highlight at its booth, including automated processing of feeds from video surveillance cameras in public transit terminals to detect "anomalous behavior," according to a report on data mining technologies that Mike McConnell, director of National Intelligence, submitted to Congress last month.

I guess I need to cease making faces at surveillance cameras in the D.C. Metro.

What $6 Billion Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative?

Meyerrose told me that I should not believe everything I read in the newspapers about the purportedly massive $6 billion Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, which supposedly is making its way through the bureaucracy and on the Hill. The biggest question is the price tag.

Though much of the project sits behind a security wall, Meyerrose told me McConnell developed the project, which is intended to extend the same cyber defense systems found on Defense networks to networks operated by civilian departments and agencies, such as the Homeland Security Department, with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence taking the lead.

Once federal civilian networks are beefed up, Meyerrose said, ODNI may work to extend the same security to commercial networks.

The Tactical User Is the Customer

Terry Meyer, director of information management at Central Command, deals with tactical end users in Afghanistan and Iraq. He told conference attendees that current intelligence systems "do not help out the guys at the pointy end of the spear," because they are blocked from accessing the information they need, because the military hasn't granted them the right certificate or role-based permission.

Maybe the folks inside the Beltway who inhibit information sharing should switch places with the tactical folks for a month or two; it might result in a real appreciation for meals ready to eat and a bit of enlightenment.

IARPA Wins the Tschotke Award

I love to check out the nominal gifts or tschotkes that federal agencies give away at trade shows. IARPA stands out as the clear winner at the conference this year. The agency handed out its amazing "buzz rocks"," vaguely egg-shaped magnets, which in the hands of a skilled operator, are thrown in the air and then magically come together again.

I really wanted some buzz rocks, but passed when the demo lady at the IARPA booth told me their magnetic fields were so strong they could erase data from credit cards and my laptop. Are buzz rocks a new secret cyberweapon?

IARPA also handed out paper coasters emblazoned with its logo, but the thin coasters did not have the durability of the thick genuine cork coasters that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency gave away at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association show a couple of years ago. At this conference, NGA handed out circular sticky notes with its seal -- and an anonymous worker at the NGA booth said I could useits pad as a coaster, peeling off the top note when it got wet.

ODNI distributed embossed calendars, but alas, they ran out by the time I stopped by. I'm on the list for the 2009 calendar.