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Have you visited the deep, dark Web recently?

July 2, 2015 Leave a comment

At the end of a long cul-de-sac at the bottom of a steep hill, our house sat near a storm sewer opening that in my memory is a couple of yards or so wide. If you poked your head down the opening and looked in the right direction, you could see daylight where the culvert emptied into a sort of open catch basin. None of us ever had the nerve to slip into the drain and walk through the dark pipe to come out in the catch basin, maybe 300 yards away. But that is where, at the age of maybe 5 or 6 years old, I realized a vast network of drainage pipes existed under our street, beneath our houses. That culvert fascinated me and my friends endlessly. We’d try to peer at one other from each end, or shout to see if our voices would carry. Or, after a rain, we’d drop a paper boat down the opening and see how long it would take to flow into the catch basin.

That sewer is like the Internet. Underneath the manifest “streets” that are thoroughly used and mapped lies a vast subterranean zone with its own stores of data. Some experts say the surface or easily accessed Internet holds only 4 percent of what’s out there. Much of the out-of-view, deep Internet consists of intellectual property that people — like academics or scientists — want to keep to themselves or share only with people they choose. But other areas lie within the deep Internet where criminal and terrorist elements  gather and communicate. That’s called the dark Internet. It’s also where dissidents who might be targeted by their own country communicate with one another. To people using regular browsers and search engines, this vast online zone is like a broadcast occurring at a frequency you need a special antenna to detect.

At the recent GEOINT conference, held for the first time in Washington, I heard a theme from several companies: Agencies will need to exploit the deep web and its subset dark web to keep up with these unsavory elements. The trend in geographical intelligence is mashing up multiple, non-geographic data sources with geographic data. In this and a subsequent post I’ll describe some of the work going on. In this post, I’ll describe work at two companies, one large and one small. They have in common some serious chops in GEOINT.

Mashup is the idea behind a Lockheed-Martin service called Halogen. Clients are intelligence community and Defense agencies, but it’s easy to see how many civilian agencies could benefit from it. Matt Nieland, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and the program manager for the product, says the Halogen team, from its operations center somewhere in Lockheed, responds to requests from clients for unconventional intel. This requires data from the deep internet. It may be inaccessible to ordinary tools, but it still falls into publicly available data. Neiland draws a crude sketch in my notebook like a potato standing on end. The upper thin slice is the ordinary Internet. A tiny slice on the bottom is the dark element. The bulk of the potato represents the deep.

Halogen uses the surface, searchable Internet in the unclassified realm. Analysts ingest material like news feeds, social media, Twitter. They mix in material that is inaccessible to standard browsers and search engines, but are neither secret nor requiring hacking. It does take skill with the anonymizing Tor browser and knowledge of how to find the lookup tables giving URLs that otherwise look like gibberish. Beyond that, Nieland says Lockheed has contacts with people around the world who can verify what it finds online. Halogen’s secret sauce is the proprietary algorithms and trade craft its analysts use to create intel products.

At the opposite end of the size spectrum from Lockheed Martin, OGSystems assembles teams of non-traditional, mostly West Coast companies to help federal agencies solve unusual problems in cybersecurity and intel, or problems they can’t find solutions for in the standard federal contractors. CEO Omar Balkissoon says the company specializes in getting non-traditional people to think about traditional questions. A typical project is the Jivango community where agencies can source answers to GEOINT questions.

OGSystems calls its R&D section VIPER Labs, crafts services, techniques and data products for national security. At GEOINT I walked to a big monitor by Jessica Thomas, a data analyst and team leader at VIPER Labs. She’s working on a OSINT (open source intelligence) product for finding and stopping human traffickers and people who exploit minors. It’s a good example of mashing up non-GEO data with GEO. The product uses an ontology used by law enforcement and national security types of words found on shady Web sites and postings to them that may be markers for this type of activity. Thomas pulled two weeks worth of posting traffic and used a geo-coding algorithm to map it to the rough locations of the IP addresses. Posters tend to be careless about how easy it is to reverse-lookup IP addresses to get a general area from where it originated. In many cases, posts included phone numbers. It wasn’t long before clusters of locations emerged indicating a possible network of human trafficking.

An enthusiastic Tor user, Thomas wants to add dark Internet material to her trafficking data mashup. She also hopes to incorporate photo recognition, and sentiment analysis that can detect emotion within language found on a web site. She says OGSystems has applied for a grant to develop its trafficking detection technology into a tool useful for wildlife trafficking — a major source of funding for terror-criminal groups like El Shabab.

Next week, some amazing things text documents can add to GEOINT.

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Government overlooks diamonds in its own back yard

May 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Nearly a century ago, a speech called “Acres of Diamonds” ranked high on the entertainment charts. Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University and the author of the essay on which it was based, delivered it 5,000 times between 1900 and 1925. Although part of the American canon of rhetoric, few nowadays know much about it. The main theme of the essay and speech is simple: Often people overlook their own back yards when seeking fortune and success. It’s an old-fashioned sounding piece, but it came to mind earlier this week during a panel discussion I moderated along with Jonathan Aberman of TandemNSI and Amplifier Ventures.

Our ostensible topic was how government program managers, R&D people and executives can more readily take advantage of the entrepreneurial and start-up technology community in the D.C. region, the federal government’s back yard. But a good deal of the discussion centered on the government’s seeming fascination with Silicon Valley. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he’ll establish a satellite office there. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also has the Silicon Valley bug. The Obama administration has recruited several appointees from the Valley, including Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, lately of Google. The White House Digital Services team is headed by another ex-Googler, Mickey Dickerson. The rest of it is heavy with people from Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and the like.

With respect to DOD, maybe a little perspective is in order. Mike Daniels has been founder, executive, seller and acquirer of federal contractors for decades. He says Valley fever has swept the government before. He counts three times over the last 35 years or so. And every time federal leaders traipse out there looking for start-up diamonds, they find out how culturally different things are out there. Without judging which is superior, Daniels says he’s never heard a Valley venture capitalist or entrepreneurial say a primary reason for a new company was to help the government solve a problem. The systems integrators and technology product companies locally have often been started by former feds, including military officers. Daniels says their orientation is, of course to make money, but their frequently-stated mission is to help the government.

Tech veteran Anup Ghosh — he founded cybersecurity outfit Invincea — comes from DARPA and so has something of a federal orientation. He says federally-focused startups proceed from a different model than those in Silicon Valley. In the D.C. region, the typical model starts with government services. This lets them win some contracts, establish a revenue stream and make a profit fairly soon. It’s a bootstrap model that can lead to second-round financing. By contract, in the Valley startups tend to lead with groundbreaking products, little thought of revenue, and the agility to keep morphing until they hit on something someone wants to buy.

Ghosh argues, the services or body-shop model doesn’t scale easily because it requires a constant linear increase in the number of people to be able to do more professional services. By contrast, products, especially software, can scale exponentially without a matching overhead increase.

The bootstrap-contract model, according to former Naval R&D guy Bob Morgan, a founder of MorganFranklin Consulting, gives the D.C. startup community a boring reputation. But often, he and others note, the products they are working on are secret because they have a national security application. Or because the government is reticent, and doesn’t want contractors talking about what they are working on.

Ghosh, Morgan, Daniels all agree, the D.C. startup environment is smaller and more specialized than that of Silicon Valley, and it lacks a catchy and enduring moniker. Daniels noted the D.C. tech community tried to brand itself back in the 1990s, but whatever name it came up with quickly faded. Silicon Valley acquired its nickname around 1980, when silicon — semiconductor design and manufacturing, as opposed to software — powered the torrid growth of the place. Plus, its name came externally and spontaneously, not from an ad agency. Throughout the world, D.C. is inseparable from the federal government. Those of us who live and work in and around D.C. know it’s a real place with real people and culture, but no ad agency could alter the external view of it.

The D.C. region is rich in startups and entrepreneurialism in cybersecurity, biology and genetics, robotics, and data analytics. From the discussion I heard, the consensus is that the federal government’s requirements remain a valuable source of money to fuel this growth activity. TandemNSI founder Jonathan Aberman correctly points out that Silicon Valley itself was fueled early on by military and NASA requirements for products pioneered by Fairchild Semiconductor and its many offshoots. (The original company in San Jose, not the one in Portland, Maine is typically put at the top of Silicon Valley genealogy charts.)

Silicon Valley today isn’t inclined towards selling to the federal government as a business goal. And, as local venturist Mark Walsh points out, big bets on tiny companies without revenue and serial business failure are common in the Valley .In the D.C. region, business failure and loss of investors’ money is less forgivable. Plus people who bootstrapped a company, got government contracts and have some sort of cash flow aren’t accustomed to the idea of ceding control to a V.C. More evidence of the big cultural divide.

All new companies, regardless of origin, face the same hurdles in selling to the government, the panelists agree. Ghosh says there’s nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulation to prevent a company from getting a contract within five days should an urgent need arise, but typically the bureaucracy plays it safe. Often for good reason. By the same token, the purportedly 18-month minimum sales cycle for a federal agency isn’t so far off what those same companies encounter when selling to the Fortune 500.

Not fully answered the other morning were these questions:

  • Does Silicon Valley really hold the scratch to the government’s technology itch? My take, yes and no. Of course there are companies originating in the Valley that could help solve federal mission challenges. It requires a great deal of research the selectiveness. Whether the Pentagon needs a mini-Pentagon off U.S. 101 is debatable.
  • Does the government overlook the acres of diamonds in its own back yard? I don’t think so. Invincea itself is a case in point. Lots of product and services companies got their start with federal requirements, and not just items unique to the military.

In Silicon Valley, people start companies with an idea, and expect the world to join in. No one realized there was a better way to hail a taxi cab. But Uber — we’ll stretch the Valley to include San Francisco — became a valuable company,  billion dollar unicorn, in Valley parlance, without owning a single car or employing a single driver. But a mobile app will never get a human to Mars, or destroy an cutthroat enemy, or analyze a half-trilliion-dollar federal program to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. Given the size and diversity of its missions, the government needs to talk to entrepreneurs everywhere.

One of the Big Guys Contributes to Open Source

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Over the years I am regularly reminded about how much software permeates industrial activity far beyond the software industry itself. Thirty years ago the procurement director at McDonnell-Douglas told me that software was the most challenging thing to predict planning and executing on aircraft design and production schedules.

A lot of software expertise resides in companies that don’t publish software. In the national defense domain, software development is diffused among Defense Department components and its many contractors.

That’s prelude to why I was intrigued by a press release last month from Lockheed Martin. Engineers in the company’s Information Systems and Global Solutions unit donated a data search engine/discovery tool to  the open source community Codice Foundation. Codice is a 2012 offshoot of the Mil-OSS project. Both work to move defense related software from the proprietary world into the open source world. Codice members modeled the effort after the granddaddy of open source foundations, Apache.

By the way, Apache last month released a new version of the widely-used Hadoop framework for distributed, big-data applications. It was a very big deal in the open source and big data application development world. For the uninitiated, here is a good explanation of Hadoop from InformationWeek.

Lockheed donated to Codice what the company describes as the core software in the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) Integrated Environment, or DIB. It’s a mouthful, but DOD uses it to share ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) data. The donated core is dubbed the Distributed Data Framework (DDF).

Andy Goodson, a Lockheed program manager, explained that the DIB started as an Air Force-led joint program a decade ago. Its basic function is to make data discoverable. As an open source tool, the DDF can be adapted to any domain where multiple data sources must also be rendered discoverable by an application. It makes data where it resides available to application algorithms as well as to processes resulting in the data’s presentation to users.

In effect, the DDF furthers the fast-emerging computing model that treats data and applications as separate and distinct resources. The federal government has been trying to adapt to this model for some time, as manifest in (among other things) the Digital Government Strategy. In practice, to be useful, data even from disparate sources within a domain must adhere to that domain’s standards. But it need not be connected to a particular algorithm or application, so the data is reusable.

Goodson said Lockeed found that the code, because it is independent of any particular data source, was not subject to export control even though it was used in a sensitive military environment. It had advice and counsel from its federal client in this determination. Now, the software is available through Codice to other agencies, systems integrators and developers dealing with the issue of big data applications.