The CIA’s Digital Future

USGIF hosts special GEOINTeraction event at SXSW


USGIF hosted a special edition of its bimonthly GEOINTeraction Tuesday networking event—calling it GEOINTeraction Monday for its departure from the regularly scheduled weekday—on March 12 in conjunction with the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas.

Speakers were Teresa Smetzer, director of Digital Futures for the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Digital Innovation Directorate, and Dr. Bob Metcalf, the inventor of Ethernet and director of the UT Austin Innovation Center.

Smetzer said the purpose of Digital Futures is “to accelerate the identification and adoption of industry-leading technology and processes to solve mission problems.”

“Sounds pretty simple, right? But it is a pretty dramatic shift from the way the government typically thinks,” she said, referring to long and complicated contracting practices.

Digital Futures’ goal is to modernize, advance, and transform the CIA mission by leveraging a network of commercial, industry, venture capital, academic, and partner agency expertise. The office also has an Innovation Hub in Silicon Valley it uses as an outpost to identify and assess potential technologies.

Smetzer listed three primary concerns facing Digital Futures: the exponential growth in the velocity, variety, and volume of data; the emergence of disruptive technologies—both as an opportunity for better data management and analysis as well as a threat in the hands of adversaries; and the existence of legacy systems and processes that inhibit innovation and agility.

“We’re different in that we start with the mission challenge first,” Smetzer said. “We’re not looking for cool new technologies, the next big widget, or something that’s really a solution in search of a problem.”

Smetzer said the CIA is particularly interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning technology such as image recognition, segmentation, anomaly detection, and optimization.

Though cloud computing is no longer considered a buzz-phrase, Smetzer said it remains “critical,” referring to the Intelligence Community’s (IC) private clouds on Amazon Web Services.

“This is game-changing,” she said. “ … All 16 [intelligence] agencies now have access to common data, common tools. … And we have the flexibility to turn compute on a dime.”

Smetzer said such accomplishments in cloud computing set the stage for what can the IC can achieve in the future.

The GEOINT Ecosystem

Metcalf spoke next, saying though he is not a GEOINT expert, he is a strong supporter of the field, which he described as an exciting and innovative ecosystem.

“There’s business intelligence, there’s artificial intelligence—why not geospatial intelligence,” Metcalf said.

He compared GEOINT to Ethernet, noting how sensors, computers, and satellites enable the GEOINT ecosystem, and recalling how the internet and semi-conductors provided a platform of technologies that led to the development of Ethernet.

Yet another essential element of a strong ecosystem is demand—just as personal computers generated demand for Ethernet.

“In this system platforms will emerge,” he said. “In [the GEOINT] ecosystem of which you’re a part someone is going to start developing standards and platforms to support killer apps.”

He added that for killer apps to emerge several standards of different types would be necessary, and encouraged the audience to be mindful of this when looking toward the future.

Headline Image: CIA Director of Digital Futures Teresa Smetzer addresses the crowd March 12 at USGIF’s SXSW networking event at The Rattle Inn. 

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