NSA warns it can't keep up with rapid changes in IT

The National Security Agency (NSA), the signals intelligence arm of the Pentagon, is losing the race to keep up with technology, its director says. And the IT industry may be the only thing that can save it.

More than a year after the NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, announced his "100 Days of Change" to revamp and revitalize an agency steeped in bureaucracy and outdated technology acquisition practices, the electronic spy chief went public with warnings of technological obsolescence. Hayden told a national television audience this week on CBS's 60 Minutes that the NSA remains behind the rest of the world in keeping up with IT development.

"We're behind the curve in keeping up with the global telecommunications revolution," said Hayden. "Our adversary communications are now based upon the developmental cycle of a global industry that is literally moving at the speed of light . . . cell phones, encryption, fiber-optic communications, digital communications," he said.

The NSA operates the world's largest pool of supercomputers and eavesdropping networks, designed to give senior government leaders such as the president real-time intelligence on the activities of terrorists and in world hot spots. However, the spread of encryption, fiber-optic cable and the sheer volume of communications to be intercepted and analyzed have overcome the NSA's ability to maintain the technical edge it once held.

The agency's self-proclaimed inability to keep up with commercial technology has led some to suggest that it might be time for the NSA to follow in the footsteps of the CIA and form its own private-sector research firm. In the spring of 1999, the CIA chartered In-Q-Tel Inc., a private, not-for-profit firm dedicated to tapping the private sector's ability to develop cutting-edge IT products that could enhance the agency's intelligence-gathering and -processing capabilities.

Jim Clapper, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who is now director of intelligence programs at SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va., said the In-Q-Tel model is a good idea for the NSA. Clapper even went so far as to say he thinks the In-Q-Tel concept should be expanded to the entire intelligence community as long as proper funding was made available. "The In-Q-Tel concept is a great one and would serve NSA well," said Clapper.

"It certainly couldn't hurt," said Allen Thomson, a former CIA scientist. An In-Q-Tel for the NSA would "allow innovators to make money without having to deal with the usual government procurement hassles" and would also act as a buffer to insulate the innovators from bureaucratic problems, he said.

A spokesperson for Arlington, Va.-based In-Q-Tel said the company has briefed a number of other federal agencies on its efforts and "there continues to be strong interest on the part of entrepreneurs" in working with the firm.

An NSA spokesperson said an internal agency effort known as Project Trailblazer has been designed to look at ways to improve the agency's technology acquisition process. The NSA is also preparing to release a proposal for a $5 billion outsourcing contract, known as Project Groundbreaker, that will transfer operation of all of its administrativee networks to one of three bidders.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Enterprise Solutions Division at the Information Technology Association of America, called Groundbreaker "a very innovative contract" and said the three potential prime contractors -- AT&T Corp., Computer Sciences Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., and OAO Corp. in Greenbelt, M.D. -- "have the expertise that NSA needs."

Bill Crowell, CEO of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Cylink Corp. and a former NSA director, said he's "bullish on the concept of In-Q-Tel" and would favor "any effort furthering and leveraging the commercial market." In particular, he said, he hopes those efforts would include technology development in the areas of processing, high speed computing, telecommunications, security and storage.

But not everybody thinks outsourcing or more money for technology research is the answer. Winn Schwartau, an information warfare expert and president of security consulting firm Interpact Inc. in Seminole, Fla., said the telecommunications revolution is not the problem. Instead, he said the spread of encryption is the problem.

"The amount of privacy and anonymity that the bad guys have available to them makes our intelligence job much harder," said Schwartau. "It's like trying to listen in to a [virtual private network]. You cannot do it." Rather, the NSA needs to get back to basics and improve its ability to use human sources and physical taps, he said. "Going after cryptography with technology is not money well spent."

This story, "NSA warns it can't keep up with rapid changes in IT" was originally published by Computerworld.

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