Targets ‘any information we can get our hands on’
So far, the Central Intelligence Agency largely has remained out of the spotlight of snooping scandals that have touched agencies such at the National Security Agency and the Justice Department.
It may not stay that way, if Ira Hunt, the agency’s chief technology officer, is right.
At a recent conference held by GigaOm Structure Data, Hunt said the agency wants to know everything there is to know and keep all the information forever so that it can “connect the dots” whenever it chooses.
“We have learned … that information has time value,” he said. “The value of any piece of information is only known when you connect it to something else in a further point of time,” he said.
That means, Hunt said, the agency is driven “into the mode of fundamentally trying to collect everything and hang onto it forever.”
Hunt’s comments came before whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed NSA programs to scan and record all telephone calls and database details about Americans from a wide range of companies.
On its website, the agency explained that every day the amount of data available is a deluge.
“Cell phones, smart houses, satellite sensors and countless other sources are creating huge amounts of information – known collectively as ‘big data,’” Hunt said.
“It’s the CIA’s job to leverage the world of big data, find out what actually matters, connect the dots and figure out what our adversaries are intending to do,” he said.
For example, Hunt told the conference there are 4,500 “tweets” per second on Twitter. Globally, there are an estimated 193,000 text messages sent per second. Americans make 2.2 trillion minutes of cell calls a year.
He said the agency found it easier to work with the old model, when the the sources of information were fewer and dominated by the likes of NBC News and the Russian news service Tass.
“We really liked the few to the many model,” he said, because it was “really easy to take advantage.”
When everyone is sharing information, he said, it’s hard for analysts to pick out a significant message.
He said the privacy risks are abundant. Most smart phones are built with technology that allows someone else to know where they are at all times. Sometimes owners even can be identified, through their smart phone, by how they walk, he said.
Hunt forecast the problem of hackers breaking into someone’s health database or health maintenance program.
He said the CIA’s assignment is to obtain information and analyze it so that commanders and the military can be warned about enemy plans, such as the case of the “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
But technology is “moving faster, I would argue, than you can keep up,” he said. “You should be asking the question …. what are your rights and who owns your data.”