CIA’s big data mission: ‘Collect everything and hang onto it forever’

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, March 21, 2013 9:26 EDT
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CIA CTO Ira "Gus" Hunt. Photo: Screenshot via Livestream.com.
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Speaking to a crowd of technology professionals Wednesday at GigaOM’s Structure:Data conference in New York City, the Central Intelligence Agency’s chief technology officer explained that the CIA is so infatuated with big data that it tries “to collect everything and hang onto it forever.”

During his nearly half-hour talk, CIA CTO Ira Hunt said that the agency is interested in “really big data,” or storage capacity on a scale unlike anything currently existing on the planet, so they can “connect the dots” with what’s happening in real time.

“The value of any piece of information is only known when you can connect it with something else that arrives at a future point in time,” Hunt told GigaOM’s crowd, in a quote first pulled by The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge. “Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.”

A failure in data analysis led to the so-called “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab being allowed onto an airplane, he explained, and the agency is eager to ensure another attack does not get through when there’s enough data available to know what’s going on and stop it.

“It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information,” he added, explaining that nearly all mobile phones now contain a camera, a microphone, a light sensor, an accelerometer and GPS, among other sensors.

The prevalence of sensors has led to a whole new world of biometric information, Hunt said, listing off a variety of ways the sensors in a mobile device can be used to identify the person carrying it. He pinpointed the most effective method as gait analysis, or watching the way a person walks and creating a complex data profile based upon their movements — something that can be accomplished with a camera and software alone.

This sort of technology is “moving faster, I would argue, than you can keep up,” he said. “You should be asking the question of, what are your rights and who owns your data.”

This video is from the GigaOM Data:Structure conference, aired Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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