In-Q-Tel Sounds Call to ‘IT Warriors’

NEW YORK – The head of a technology venture firm funded by the Central Intelligence Agency appealed to Information Technology “warriors” across corporate America to help the CIA’s IT warriors access the best technology.

“We need these technologies to address our critical IT needs,” said Gilman Louie, president and CEO of In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s non-profit venture firm. The CIA created the company in 1999 in order to get cutting edge intelligence products into use more quickly.

During a keynote address on the last day of the TechXNY PCExpo trade show here, Louie outlined some of the issues facing the CIA by framing them as the same issues facing corporate America.

Chief among its interests are data and knowledge management systems. The CIA “was about to die from information overload,” Louie said, much the same way other government agencies and corporate America are swimming in information after years of IT investment.

While conceding that the CIA, and In-Q-Tel for that matter, can’t just go out and hire an unknown company to fix its classified data needs, Louie stressed In-Q-Tel’s mission of working openly with the private sector. It’s a radical new model for the agency, a departure from its so-called Skunkworks model whereby a group of people or quasi-company/agency were set up to build specific products, usually in secret.

Although In-Q-Tel’s customers — the President and Secretary of Defense, for example — are different than corporate America’s, the agency’s goals are in many ways similar to those faced by corporate IT managers, he said. That might include how to help workers squeeze 20 more minutes of productivity out of their day, or how to manage e-mail when it is endlessly forwarded to the point that people lose track of what the thread was originally about, or deploying access to critical data from the field securely.

“You just can’t go out and hire 5,000 new analysts and put them to work” when so many of the issues are about technology deployment.

And speaking of information security, the usual perimeter defenses in corporate IT networks aren’t enough, he said. Like the CIA, corporate America needs “a more robust system of protection similar to the way a biological organism protects itself” from opportunistic diseases and other threats.

Yet “in spite of all the hoopla about information security, as it translates down to the end-user, we still have a long way to go. Information security will never get where it needs to go if it is not transparent to the end-user.”

In the area of business continuity planning, even mirroring data to another site is not as strong a prevention mechanism in a post-September 11 world, he said, as companies in the north tower of the World Trade Center that mirrored back-up data to the south tower found out.

“Tomorrow’s world will be a distributed world,” said the former computer gaming executive with Hasbro. “The concept of putting information in a data silo is a fundamentally flawed strategy. The trend is all about deploying peer-to-peer systems” that enable users at the edge of a network to pass along or access information.

Wireless networking is also of huge interest for In-Q-Tel because of the obvious advantages with anytime, anywhere connectivity that would help an agent pluck real-time specific chunks of data from the enterprise.

But let’s face, he continued, “security in 802.11 networks doesn’t exist. If you want to really enable wireless networks, you have to fix that security problem.”

In most wireless Local Area Networks, data is either vulnerable or so well-protected it is inaccessible. “Either way, (without secure wireless data networks) we lose, and we lose our advantage to act faster than our competition overseas.”

In-Q-Tel is also very interested in companies that make remote sensing technology — so-called smart devices that attach to data collection tools such as meter readers. “Remote sensing is going to be huge,” Louie said, even for companies that make related technology such as data collection for remote sensing, wireless transmissions, even longer-life batteries that power the devices.

“There’s a huge need” for these technologies. If there were more remote sensing technology in use right now, it might help prevent “someone from walking through the perimeter defense of the San Francisco airport with a bomb in his shoe.”

In-Q-Tel’s customers may be different from those of corporate IT workers, but the CIA and corporate America’s goals are similar in this area: “Trying to figure out good technology from bad,” and looking for advice to help make those decisions.

That the government is planning to spend $38 billion in a major restructuring for homeland defense is certainly an opportunity for technology companies with the right products, he added.

If you’re an IT warrior going after those opportunities, Louie’s advice is to think about “how can we deploy the best technology to fundamentally give us a competitive edge and identify the treats before they are threats, and act before the fact.”

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