Spies, PIs and Snitches on Net
CIA, Others Join Thriving Commercial Intelligence Pool
The government's intelligence agencies are setting up a six-node Internet link to gather and share unclassified scientific, economic, military and political information.
The move reflects the growing strength of the $13 billion U.S. electronic publishing industry, and demonstrates efforts by intelligence agencies to bolster their use of unclassified data, said Joe Markowitz, chief of open-source information for the Intelligence Community Staff.
In the argot of intelligence professionals, open-source intelligence means unclassified data gathered from public sources .
The Internet-based link, tentatively called the Open Source Information System, should be operating by the end of summer, said Markowitz.
It will link intelligence agencies, commercial data sources and the government-wide National Technical Information Service.
Markowitz's staff is responsible for coordinating the government's intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md. It is headed by intelligence chief R. James Woolsey and based at the CIA's Langley, Va. headquarters.
New Intelligence Sources
Online services, and other open sources of information such as newspapers and scientific papers, offer a variety of information, cost little and help agencies better target their classified intelligence-gathering systems, he said.
But open sources cannot do the complete job, he said. For example, covert spying systems, such as spy satellites, are needed to track events in North Korea, he said.
Although the new six-node network is a good idea, the intelligence agencies have been slow to make use of open-source data, according to Bob Steele, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and now a proponent of open-source intelligence gathering.
The intelligence agencies and other government departments, such as Treasury, should make increased use of companies such as BDM Federal Inc. to collect and analyze open-source data, helping boost national security efforts and economic performance, he said. Steele is president of Open Source Solutions Inc., based in Oakton, Va.
Already, a variety of businesses, many of them located in the Washington area, have sprung up to offer private intelligence-gathering services to the U.S. and foreign governments, companies and individuals.
Among the different sectors in the burgeoning business are freelance information brokers, who mine commercial databases for pay. Computer-literate private eyes and competitive intelligence professionals, who monitor market conditions and rival companies' performances, also are cashing in.
Mary-Ellen Bates, an information-broker with her own Washington, D.C.-based firm, Bates Information Services, says she routinely charges between $500 and $1,500 for an on-line search, seeking answers to questions on issues such as trade with Somalia or the paper-towel industry.
Other firms, such as Psytep Corp., Corpus Christi, Texas, offer a mix of open-source and investigative intelligence, while firms such as Real-World Intelligence Inc., based in Friday Harbor, Wash., will build computerized intelligence-collections systems for their clients.
Larger companies include specialized consulting firms such as FIND/SVP Inc. in New York and BDM Federal, as well as massive database providers like Dow Jones Information Services, New York, and Mead Data Central Inc., Dayton, Ohio.
Norm Wood, head of national security work for BDM, said the company works as an open-source collector for the U.S. government and private companies as well as one foreign government. Wood declined to identify any of the firm's customers.
By using the myriad of computer databases available through a phone jack, these open-source intelligence experts can dip into a cornucopia of information provided by publications, companies, governments, universities and research centers said Markowitz. The information includes scientific discussions, economic data, political analyses, military assessments, as well as maps, pictures and large-scale photographs scanned by government satellites.
'We will find it'
For example, FIND//SVP employs 100 subject-experts, backed up by 3,000 on-line publications, 12,000 subject files and 17 allied companies around the globe, to provide rapid-response intelligence to decision makers, according to Joe Cositore, FIND/SVP's marketing chief.
"If the information exists somewhere in the public domain, we will find it for you," he said.
Industry members, such as Bates and Steele, distanced themselves from illegally or covertly gathered data. Such data, including patients' medical histories or companies' proprietary data, can be acquired by bribes or deception, but are only a very small portion of the commercial intelligence gathering business, they insisted.
To make better use of open source data, the intelligence agencies need new software than can better search the mountain of available open-source data, said Markowitz. Open-source data "has a low signal-to-noise ratio. You have to mine a lot of it to get nuggets," he said.
Also, the intelligence agencies need better software that will allow intelligence analysts to merge classified and open-source data without accidentally releasing secret information, he said. Also, new technology is needed to ease the merger of images, sounds, data and words, he said.
To promote development of such software technology, software companies will be invited to let intelligence analysts test company software on the new six-node network, said Markowitz. Such field tests will help the agencies decide what to buy, and help the companies to develop better products, he said.