The NSA might be getting a lot of attention right now, but it’s certainly not the only intelligence agency collecting and analyzing information in the name of protecting America against its enemies.

The CIA’s chief technology officer, Ira “Gus” Hunt, at GigaOM’s Structure:Data 2013 conference gave fascinating insight into his view points on “big data.”

ira gus hunt

CIA’s Chief Technology Officer Ira “Gus” Hunt (Image: YouTube screenshot)

Given the recent news of how the government is collecting and uses big data, it’s worth calling out a few details from Hunt’s April speech on the topic, which also included a few other nuggets of interest.

We’ve pulled out a few of these points and quotes. But first, here’s Hunt’s perhaps most telling word to the wise, which is exceedingly timely with news of recent leaks:

“Technology in this world is moving faster than government or law can keep up. It’s moving faster than you can keep up. You should be asking what are your rights and who owns your data,” he said at the end of his presentation.

Now for the points:

  • How ‘big’ is ‘big’?: Google stopped reporting how big it was about four years ago. At that time, it was more than 100 petabytes in size. YouTube is the only exabyte scale or bigger repository on the planet.
  • Your most personal identifying feature is…: Your gait. Pulling out a Fitbit, a fitness tracking gadget, Hunt said you can be “100 percent guaranteed to be identified by simply your gait, how you walk.” He pointed out that this could be great for security reasons, like ensuring you are who you say you are at the bank. But it also could be bad for those who don’t want to be identified for whatever reason. ”Some good things here, but maybe not so good things.” But, the potential he said for technologies is “enormously good.”
  • Mobile is not secure: ”Even if a mobile device is turned off, someone can find you at all times.” -Hunt
  • CIA uses NSA-developed framework: Hunt mentioned Ozone framework in the talk. He compared its functionality to being like “all the same reasons that you like your smartphone and your iPad and things like that, that you can personalize …we need to build an environment that our analysts, our operators and other people like that can put on the necessary functionality that matters to them and personalize their world.” In a 2010 interview with FCW, Hunt explained further that the Ozone framework was developed by the NSA, based on iGoogle. It is a widget framework that the CIA now uses to build its applications and user interface functions. Pretty techie stuff, but now you know.
  • Where did big data come from?: Social media and mobile devices. Hunt said the social mobile cloud accelerated social change “in ways that were absolutely unanticipated.” An example was Arab Spring.
  • Intelligence agencies have a problem with big data: There’s too much of it. “[There is a] whole lot of noise out there. There is signal that we need to find. How to do you find a signal in ever increasing seas of noise?” Hunt asked. The problem with big data is how to find the 5 kilobytes of data that have value in 500 million gigabytes of useless information, he noted as an example.
  • More is better: ”If you throw away information in our world because you didn’t think it had any value. Or if you chose not to bring in or collect information because you didn’t match what you thought you needs were at that time,” you won’t have the information you need to connect dots, Hunt said. This drives the government into a mode of where it tries to “collect everything and hang onto it forever, forever being in quotes, of course.”
  • How many crimes have London’s cameras stopped?: Hunt pointed to London as the most camera-ed city on the planet. The devices were installed to help stop crime. “Do you know many crimes they can definitively …tie to the camera?” One. It could, however, be argued that cameras do help solve crimes after the fact, as they did in helping find the bombers of the Boston Marathon, and could discourage people from committing crimes.
  • Humans are becoming mobile sensors (a la smartphones): “Sensor’s are promiscuous: They never met any signal that they didn’t like and they’re indiscriminate to process any signal that they get.” And, as he noted before, we need to keep in mind that mobile is not secure.
  • Why we care about data?: ”We care because …it can be a good thing for you and your friends to know where you are all the time. In my business, that can be not such a good thing.”
  • Forget search: Search as a functional tool is ”so broken in this petabyte world.” The CIA wants a tool that easily allows its users to “understand the relationship between a bunch of folks. A nice graph that explains how people are related in any number of different ways.”
  • Tech is only getting bigger: “I think we are at high noon in the information age. And I say this because of the following. It is really within our grasp to be able to compute on all human-generated information.”
  • Next up: “Cognitive machines are going to do everything from medicine to financial trading to helping us with our intelligence analysis across the board.”

Watch Hunt talk about big data in this nearly 30 minute speech at the conference:

(H/T: GigaOM)

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