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US launches ‘MySpace for spies'

FT.com | Aug 22, 2007
Demetri Sevastopulo

Spies and teenagers normally have little in common but that is about to change as America's intelligence agencies prepare to launch “A-Space”, an internal communications tool modelled on the popular social networking sites, Facebook and MySpace.

The Director of National Intelligence will open the site to the entire intelligence community in December. The move is the latest part of an ongoing effort to transform the analytical business following the failure to detect the 9/11 terrorist attacks or find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, believes the common workspace – a kind of “MySpace for analysts” – will generate better analysis by breaking down firewalls across the traditionally stove-piped intelligence community. He says the technology can also help process increasing amounts of information where the number of analysts is limited.

“Burying the same number of analysts in ever higher piles of hay would no more increase the number of needles,” says Mr Fingar.

Underscoring the power of social-networking sites, the Central Intelligence Agency recently used Facebook to help boost applications for the national clandestine service. The move sparked concerns that the CIA was monitoring members, which the agency denies.

”Earlier this year, the CIA used Facebook - an excellent peer-to-peer marketing tool - to advertise employment opportunities with the agency,” said George Little, a CIA spokesman. “This effort, part of a much broader campaign leveraging traditional and new advertising media, was used strictly for informational purposes.”

The DNI has also built an internal collaborative site called Intellipedia, modelled on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. It has also created a version of http://del.icio.us, the social book-marking site, for members of the intelligence community. Another tool that has been developed is a national intelligence library, which can be accessed from A-Space.

While MySpace and Facebook have spread like wildfire, particularly among the younger generations of internet users, members of the intelligence community are divided. Mike Wertheimer, the senior DNI official for analytic transformation and technology, illustrates the dilemma with an example from an internal blog thread last year.

A female employee who had arranged a high-school reunion on MySpace asked why the community had not created a similar tool. That prompted a response that she wasn't thinking big enough. But Mr Wertheimer says two other people immediately jumped in with concerns about a “counter-intelligence nightmare” that could cost US lives.

“That is very typical within the intelligence community of the approach to social networking tools,” says Mr Wertheimer. “The positive value is…not easily quantified. The negative, the risk for people under cover… is drawn out so starkly, even though it is speculative, that they tend to carry the day.”

But he says the intelligence community needs to consider that not sharing information can also cost lives, a lesson learned from the 9/11 attacks.

“We are willing to experiment in ways that we have never experimented before,” he adds. “It breaks a lot of traditional senses that people's lives are at risk, and how can you take any step that increases that risk.”

Mr Wertheimer says A-Space will initially be voluntary to assuage worries of spies concerned about blowing their cover. The DNI wants some foreign intelligence services to participate in A-Space, but there has been some resistance.

“I would say in the entire community, the folks most virulently against sharing the information are the foreign partners,” says Mr Wertheimer, who says the also want access to the intelligence library.

“They ask ‘well can we have access?',” says Mr Wertheimer. “I ask them back if you want access, what services are you willing to create for the library, what data are you willing to put in it, have you thought through your risk/profit scenario? They kind of stand back because that is not normally how we talk to them. It is a new day.”

A-Space will be equipped with web-based email and software that recommends areas of interest to the user just like Amazon suggests books to its customers. The site will also allow users to create and modify documents, and determine user privileges, in a similar fashion to Google Documents.

Mr Wertheimer says the new infrastructures should help break down some of the physical communications problems in the intelligence community.

“I am unable to send email, and even make secure phone calls, to a good portion of the Intel community from my desktop because of firewalls,” he says.

In September, the DNI and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a public-private intelligence group, will hold a conference to enlist support and ideas from the private sector and academia.

“We have gotten to the stage where we want to open this up, tap more ideas, stimulate some competition to help us here,” says Mr Fingar.

Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, invited the chief executives of Facebook and MySpace to participate, but so far Mark Zuckerburg, the CEO of Facebook, has declined. A Facebook spokeswoman said the decision was purely because of scheduling conflicts.

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