A-Space: Social Network for Spies

A-Space is modeled after MySpace and Facebook but its purpose it to help covert operatives share information.

Spies arent generally anxious to share information, but the Director of National Intelligence and the United States government are encouraging them to do so and to use a secure social network, "A-Space" to do it.

"A-Space" (A is for analyst), modeled after MySpace and Facebook, will open in December for U.S. spies and covert operatives across 16 some intelligence agencies to share information with each other.

The effort is spearheaded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or DNI, a post created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, to coordinate foreign and domestic security and promote collaboration among those 16 intelligence groups. To respect the concerns of operatives undercover and other security-leery analysts, A-Space will be voluntary.

Mike Wertheimer, the senior DNI official for analytic transformation and technology, said A-Space is one of the fruits of labor of a security agency that is trying to change the way information is shared after the failure to foresee and prevent the 9/11 attacks.

A-Space will be used to help intelligence specialists gather and share more information across the siloed and firewalled fortresses that comprise the security industrys IT infrastructure.


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"Today, each of the 16 components, CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], NSA [National Security Agency], [etc.] live on agency-specific networks with their own firewalls protecting them," Wertheimer said in a phone interview with eWEEK on August 30. "Theyre linked physically, but theyre not linked virtually because of the firewalls and the protections associated.

A-Space will be laid on top of those firewalls and accessed via a Web browser. The site will have the look and feel of a VPN (virtual private network) and be able to tunnel through the disparate firewalls to allow every analyst in the community to access a common network.

To ensure that analysts can access the best intelligence, A-Space will be equipped with Web-based e-mail, instant messaging and other collaboration tools, such as the ability to create and edit documents (much like the Docs program in Googles Apps suite) and even application mashups.


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This is a far cry from the current infrastructure set-up in the DNI.

"Today, if I want to read my Internet e-mail, I have to have a separate computer on my desk, which I do, that is connected to the Internet," Wertheimer said. "Suppose I want to search both our classified holdings and the Internet, I have one computer for one and one computer for the other and it is very difficult to move information from the Internet onto my classified holdings."

A-Space will search not only the classified holding, but send the search out to the Internet, retrieve the information and populate it on one computer.

The DNI has also built its own version of the social encyclopedia site Wikipedia.org. Called Intellipedia, the site includes articles about the war in Iraq, as well as top secret documents. To round out the trio of social networking, DNI has also crafted Tag|Connect, a social tagging technology akin to del.icio.us.

But isnt the idea of social networking tools antithetical to the perception of spies? Have we become so wrapped up in the cloak-and-dagger ways of James Bond or Jason Bourne?

Wertheimer said we need to get out of the Cold War-era mentality of compartmentalizing information and communications among security groups. This is, after all, the Internet age, he said.

Alluding to the 9/11 attacks, Wertheimer believes not sharing information can cost lives, making A-Space and the associated tools, a valuable necessity in todays society. He also said that the onus to protect such a suite of tools in the government arena should be on IT security experts.

"I believe the monkey is not on my back, the monkey is on the back of the security folks. We have not challenged them in a world which is more socially networked," Wertheimer said.

To that end, the DNI and the Intelligence and Security Alliance will host an Analytic Transformation Symposium from Sept. 4 through Sept. 7 in Chicago to showcase A-Space and invite feedback.

IT analysts applauded A-Space, but also expressed surprise that the government, typically the last faction to take up new technologies, moved so fast into this space.

"While usually, I would assume government is a late adopter to new technologies and features, weve seen corporations bring such technologies in-house already," said Jupiter Research analyst Emily Riley.

"For the government to start doing it, theyre probably along with more of the cutting-edge large corporations that are doing it and that impresses me," Riley added.

Forrester Research analyst Rob Koplowitz said there is value in "social networking in a lot of other contexts beyond learning about Lindsay Lohan or finding a shared passion for tulips."

"These same lessons can be applied in an enterprise or government setting, but you have to do it with an eye towards security, governance and policy," Koplowitz said. "How do I do this in a way that allows people to take advantage of some of the inherent capabilities with compromising the things that are important to my organization?"


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