NSA Joins Facebook for Spies

Baltimore Sun’s David Wood reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) has finally, several months after launch, decided to join a whopping 16 other US intelligence agencies in signing up for A-Space, the secure Facebook for intelligence analysts. You guessed it (or even if you didn’t), the ‘A’ stands for ‘analyst.’

You know that social networking has reached new heights when one of the most secretive intelligence agencies in the world is allowing its analysts to create online profiles decked out with the usual photo, phone number and email address, plus area of professional expertise and details of the projects they’re working on. No doubt A-Space also has fields for undercover aliases and favorite spy gadgets.

Facebook for SpiesJokes aside, it’s remarkable what A-Space will do for the U.S. intelligence community if it takes off (and isn’t paralyzed by the ever-looming threat of cyber espionage). The MO among spies and analysts has always been that information is dispensed strictly on a “need to know” basis. The trouble with this approach is that sometimes, you don’t always know what someone else needs to know.

Case in point: 9/11. After the mass-scale terrorist attacks that shook the U.S., investigators found out that NSA intelligence gathered in 1999 had identified two of the future attackers: Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, now known as the hijackers who should have been caught. The NSA intelligence never got any real attention because the folks who intercepted it didn’t think other people “needed to know.” But clearly, other people did.

Maj. Gen. John DeFreitas, chief of analysis for the NSA, says that “need to know” is outdated and has become “need to show.” In a field where analysts used to struggle to penetrate even the ‘locked’ compartments within their own organizations, let alone being able to collaborate across agencies, this is huge.

As Dennis Wood reports, “Until now, a Pentagon analyst working on Afghanistan, for instance, might not know about highly sensitive NSA intercepts of opium smugglers discussing payoffs to Taliban insurgents.” Now, “they will be able to search databases, post drafts of reports for comment or send around perplexing intercepts with a note that says, ‘Anybody have any idea what this means?’

“They will be able to collaborate with analysts at the FBI, the State Department or the Defense Intelligence Agency working on similar problems, and they will be able to identify an expert with knowledge they lack. And, like any teenager, they can use the system to text-message suggestions, tips and professional gossip.”

NSA Joins A-SpaceReally, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for the spy agencies to collaborate in a method appropriate (not to mention necessary for) the 21st century, but on the other hand, A-Space does break every rule in the NSA’s info-sharing handbook. Federal stats show that cyber attacks on U.S. government systems have been on the rise, and in such a climate, of course A-Space has generated a legitimate concern over data security.

DeFreitas does not regard this as a real stumbling block, however: “We had similar arguments when the police started using radios,” he said. “The fear was, criminals would listen in and stay ahead of the cops.”

What’s been seen of A-Space in action is promising. When Mumbai was under terrorist siege in late 2008, inter-agency analysts immediately logged into A-Space to share what they knew or had found out about the situation. Another example: An analyst who’d come across what was supposedly a new Chinese submarine tossed it to the A-Space community and soon got a problem-solving response from a Photoshop wiz, something to the effect of: it’s a doctored pic, the shadows don’t match, don’t waste your time puzzling over it.

Seven thousand out of approximately 10,000 U.S. intelligence analysts have joined the classified network, but not nearly that many – Wood reports “only a few” – use it on a regular basis. Old habits are tough to break, and for analysts who’ve been trained throughout their careers to keep everything on the DL, hyperactive sharing à la Facebook will no doubt  take a little while to catch on.

illustration for TIME by Christoph Niemann, courtesy of timeinc.net; pic courtesy of cnet.com

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