Big Data and the Internet of Things: Implications in the Intelligence Community

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by Gil Allouche

Rumor has it that if you’re lucky enough to visit Bill Gate’s home on Lake Washington, upon your arrival you’ll be given a microchip to keep with you everywhere you go. As you navigate the mansion you’ll discover that the lighting and climate respond to your presence, the artwork on the walls changes to suit your tastes, and your favorite music follows you from room to room. Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT), a world of web-connected devices that is drawing the attentions of Billionaire philanthropists and, as it turns out, the intelligence community.

According to a recent article on Informationweek.com, the Internet of Things—defined simply as “the accelerating expansion of data-gathering devices that are connected to the Internet”—has the potential to “completely change the intelligence community.”

That’s a bold statement, supported in part by a panel of experts that recently convened at the Intelligence & National Security Summit in Washington, D.C. According to the article the panel concluded that, “the explosion of data is generally a good thing when it comes to meeting the mission of the intelligence community.”   

Speaking on the role of technology in the intelligence community, Lewis Shepard, director and general manager of the Microsoft Institute, said, according to the Informationweek article that, “the classic mission of the intelligence community is understanding the outside world, not just the adversary and his capabilities. We cannot understand the world if we do not understand how the world is changing, including broader cultural, social, and demographic changes.”

As for just how the intelligence community might use the IoT, a 2012 article on wired.com titled, “We’ll Spy on You Through Your Dishwasher”, offers a glimpse of what the CIA has planned. According to the article, all of these web-connected personal and household devices, such as smart appliances, car navigation systems, and light switches, can be used to spy on us. And CIA director David Petraus intends to use the IoT to do just that. According to the article, physical “bugs” that once had to be planted in order to listen in on conversations will soon be replaced by the ability to intercept tagged geo-location data sent out from web-connected devices in real-time. “If you’re a ‘person of interest’,” the article states, “All those new online devices are a treasure trove of data to the spy community.”

Expounding on that theme, Petraus offers that, “Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation Internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing, the latter now going to cloud computing, in many areas greater and greater supercomputing, and, ultimately, heading to quantum computing.”

As Petraus indirectly points out, all of this information streaming in from Internet-connected devices and networks will require sophisticated Big Data analytics tools to make sense of it all. The Informationweek article also addressed how the IoT “raises concerns about how to sift through useful information from the vast quantities of data generated, as well as issues of privacy.”

Commenting on the big analytics challenges presented by IoT information—such as selecting and prioritizing data—Chris Reed, the program manager in the Office of Smart Collection at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) offers in the Informationweek article that the lack of interoperability of web-connected devices is a real hurdle. “Each of these have their own ways of collecting, transmitting, [and] using data,” Reed says, “A lot of times you purchase a device and you’re locked into a proprietary silo… Particularly on government procurements, we need to make sure we can unlock the value of the data.”

Clearly, with the rapid proliferation of Internet-connected devices, Big Data analytics platforms—particularly cloud-based Hadoop similar to Amazon Elastic MapReduce—will play a major role in helping the intelligence community and commercial enterprise to capture, manage and make sense of astronomical volumes of data flowing in from the Internet of Things.

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