FBI’s Counterterrorism Investigations Now Run on Amazon

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The FBI is the latest intelligence agency to partner with Amazon Web Services.

The FBI is using Amazon Web Services’ cloud services to process, host and analyze both classified and unclassified counterterrorism data, an FBI official revealed Tuesday.

The previously undisclosed partnership dates back nearly two years and began after the FBI reached a “data crisis,” according to FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Christine Halvorsen, who made the announcement at AWS’ re:Invent conference in Las Vegas.

“The FBI is in a data crisis, and solution is the adoption of cloud technology,” Halvorsen said.

The FBI is the latest intelligence agency to make use of AWS, which operates three cloud regions—massive data centers that lease out computing power—that explicitly serve the federal government.

Halvorsen said the FBI’s counterterrorism division previously operated its own data center, including the massive amount of information that comes in following national security and counterterrorism events. That data is growing exponentially, Halvorsen said, comparing the 50 terabytes of data that came in following the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 to the petabyte of data—20 times more—following the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas carried out by Stephen Paddock.

The data collection and analysis for these types of investigations are now carried out in one of several AWS regions, depending on the sensitivity of the data. Information classified at the secret or top secret level makes use of the C2S cloud, which was developed by AWS five years ago for the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

Sensitive unclassified data can be hosted on either AWS’ East or West GovCloud region depending on geographic proximity.

Teresa Carlson, who heads AWS’ global public sector business, told Nextgov Wednesday the FBI “realized they needed to move faster and needed help.” Carlson also said the FBI’s cloud use gives it access to an abundance of additional services, such as complex big data analytics software, to run at scale in national security emergencies.

Kevin Heald, vice president of defense intelligence at Novetta, which operates high-end analytics in the AWS cloud for the FBI, said counterterrorism investigations rapidly ingest “billions of data points,” including video footage, photos, interviews and notes.

“I can’t emphasize enough the cool stuff really smart people can do and experiment in hours and days when it would have [previously] taken months to buy racks of gear to house all this data,” Heald told Nextgov Wednesday.

The FBI is also piloting the use of another Amazon service, the Rekognition facial matching program, as a means to quickly pour through video surveillance. Following the Las Vegas shooting, Halvorsen said “we had agents and analysts, eight per shift, working 24/7 for three weeks going through the video footage of everywhere Stephen Paddock was the month leading up to him coming and doing the shooting.”

She estimated Amazon Rekognition, analyzing the information in the cloud, could have gone through the data in 24 hours.