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NSA has moved a massive collection of sensitive data to the cloud

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. (WikiMedia Commons)
June 26, 2018

The National Security Agency (NSA) is almost finished moving most of its data to a new cloud computing environment called Intelligence Community GovCloud.

With the new system, analysts can more efficiently “connect the dots” when looking through the NSA’s massive collection of data.

The IC GovCloud is part of a $600 million contract that was awarded to Amazon Web Services four years ago to develop advanced cloud environments for the NSA and 16 other agencies within the Intelligence Community, including the Central Intelligence Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Moving all of the data over to the new IC GovCloud was a lengthy process due to the sensitive nature of the data and its large quantity.

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The new “big data fusion environment” simplifies the process of running complicated queries, since the data is now in a single lake.

“The NSA has been systematically moving almost all its mission into this big data fusion environment. Right now, almost all NSA’s mission is being done in IC GovCloud, and the productivity gains and the speed at which our analysts are able to put together insights and work higher-level problems has been really amazing,” NSA Chief Information Officer Greg Smithberger said.

The data has all been meta-tagged, which designates who is authorized to see it, and it omits unnecessary data that would get in the way of specific investigations.

Analysts can “interactively ask questions” of the data, and the machine learning and algorithms will translate the data into a “humanly readable form.”

“This environment allows us to run analytic tools and do machine-assisted data fusion and big data analytics, and apply a lot of automation to facilitate and accelerate what humans would like to do, and get the machines to do it for them,” Smithberger said.

There are many similarities between the IC GovCloud and the cloud data solutions that are used by companies such as Apple and Facebook.

There are some differences with the NSA’s system, though, as the agency has implemented custom software, exotic processing, high-performance computing and other unique intellectual property.

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“It’s really a hybrid of the latest and greatest commercial technology, but a lot of custom NSA technology and a lot of unique development we’ve done to actually create these outcomes,” Smithberger said.

There has been a push for the U.S. government to increase its cooperation with Silicon Valley tech companies so it doesn’t fall behind adversaries such as China, who have been making significant investments in artificial intelligence and machine learning technology.

Last year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with Google and other tech firms to “discuss with key leaders in the technology community how DoD can leverage new commercial technologies and methodologies, and further expand initiatives designed to accelerate fielding capabilities to the warfighter,” according to a press release.