Secrecy News

Growing Data Collection Inspires Openness at NGA

A flood of information from the ongoing proliferation of space-based sensors and ground-based data collection devices is promoting a new era of transparency in at least one corner of the U.S. intelligence community.

The “explosion” of geospatial information “makes geospatial intelligence increasingly transparent because of the huge number and diversity of commercial and open sources of information,” said Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), in a speech last month.

Hundreds of small satellites are expected to be launched within the next three years — what Mr. Cardillo called a “darkening of the skies” — and they will provide continuous, commercially available coverage of the entire Earth’s surface.

“The challenges of taking advantage of all of that data are daunting for all of us,” Mr. Cardillo said.

Meanwhile, the emerging “Internet of Things” is “spreading rapidly as more people carry more handheld devices to more places” generating an abundance of geolocation data.

This is, of course, a matter of intelligence interest since “Every local, regional, and global challenge — violent extremism in the Middle East and Africa, Russian aggression, the rise of China, Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons, cyber security, energy resources, and many more — has geolocation at its heart.”

Consequently, “We must open up GEOINT far more toward the unclassified world,” Director Cardillo said in another speech last week.

“In the past, we have excelled in our closed system. We enjoyed a monopoly on sources and methods. That monopoly has long since ended. Today and in the future, we must thrive and excel in the open.”

So far, NGA has already distinguished itself in the area of disaster relief, Mr. Cardillo said.

“Consider Team NGA’s response to the Ebola crisis. We are the first intelligence agency to create a World Wide Web site with access to our relevant unclassified content. It is open to everyone — no passwords, no closed groups.”

NGA provided “more than a terabyte of up-to-date commercial imagery.”

“You can imagine how important it is for the Liberian government to have accurate maps of the areas hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic as well as the medical and transportation infrastructure to combat the disease,” Mr. Cardillo said.

But there are caveats. Just because information is unclassified does not mean that it is freely available.

“Although 99 percent of all of our Ebola data is unclassified, most of that is restricted by our agreements [with commercial providers],” Mr. Cardillo said. “We are negotiating with many sources to release more data.”

Last week, Director Cardillo announced a new project called GEOINT Pathfinder that will attempt “to answer key intelligence questions using only unclassified data.”

When it comes to transparency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligencerecently expressed the view that the U.S. intelligence community should make “information publicly available in a manner that enhances public understanding of intelligence activities, while continuing to protect information when disclosure would harm national security.”

But some intelligence agencies have chosen a different path.

At the CIA, for example, public access to unclassified translations and analytical products of the Open Source Center was abruptly terminated at the end of 2013. Such materials from the OSC and its predecessor, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, had provided invaluable support to generations of scholars, students, and foreign policy specialists. But that is no longer the case.