Consumer Innovations to Inform Web Site for Spies

By Sam Diaz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007

Government agents may soon find valuable information through an online-recommendation system like the one on Spies who read this report, it might say, also found these reports useful.

That is one of several features the Office of the Director of National Intelligence might borrow from mainstream technology as it designs its new Web-based information-sharing system.

The DNI is working on a new system intended to "tunnel through" the 16 different intelligence-gathering agencies in hopes of streamlining data sharing, said Michael Wertheimer, DNI's assistant deputy director for analytic transformation and technology.

The system, called A-Space, will only be open to those cleared to use it and is scheduled to go live in December. The DNI said it was taking its cues from social networking sites, Web-based mail, online maps and other commonly used online tools. Next month, it will take its concepts to a conference in Chicago, where universities, tech companies and other government agencies will be invited to scrutinize the project.

"This is a revolutionary concept for us," Wertheimer said. "This is unlike any other technology we've created."

This is not the government's first attempt to imitate consumer technology. Last year, inspired by the popular user-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia, the government launched Intellipedia, an internal site aimed at information exchange in the intelligence community.

A-Space, which will cost about $5 million to design, will operate like a password-protected corporate intranet, where companies post important documents, after-hours contact information or special skills of certain employees. Moving such information online would allow employees to access it from anywhere they can find a Internet-connected computer, whether that's at home or at a coffee shop -- similar to the way someone might access their free Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail account. The Financial Times reported this week that the government was working on this project.

The government acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns about such an undertaking, including the risk of hackers and other security breaches, but Wertheimer said the DNI is soliciting input on those problems.

"Obviously, security is a huge concern, and it's a valid concern that has to be addressed," said Teresa Smetzer, chief executive of Jasmah Consulting, an intelligence consulting firm in Reston. "It's very important, but there are ways to constructively address those challenges."

Smetzer, who said she worked as a Central Intelligence Agency analyst for 17 years and is scheduled to be a panelist at the Chicago event, said in designing A-Space, the government is trying to become more efficient and responsive, just as businesses use technology to adapt quickly to changing trends.

"There's a huge amount of expertise distributed across a lot of agencies and locations," she said. "How do you quickly find people and pull them into a collaborative environment so they can work on projects?"

Traditional information-sharing involved a lot of phone calls to find expertise in a specific field, she said. Now businesses are increasingly using networking tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook to identify those people with the click of a mouse.

One feature of the proposed government system will include a Web-based library that can sift through similar reports and use a recommendation system similar to those of Amazon, iTunes and other e-commerce sites, Wertheimer said.

Its system will also include tools to limit access according to users' security clearance, similar to the way MySpace uses privacy settings so users can choose who sees their profiles, he said. A-Space could also include programs that combine Google Maps with government data so intelligence agencies can chart, for example, the location of nuclear power plants or regions with recent epidemic outbreaks, he said.

The government could draw a number of other features from the technology community.

"Some of your best technology ideas are not going to be found in government labs or be on an intelligence community Listserv," said Jason Kello, spokesman for the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit, public-private intelligence group in Arlington that is sponsoring the conference.

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