Intell agencies look to the cloud to store classified data

Serious change is afoot in the intelligence community. Some of the most opaque federal organizations are doing what might have sounded crazy five years ago: They’re moving their classified, sensitive information — some of it, at least — off their own servers and into the cloud. Moreover, they will be sharing that information with one another.

“They” are a powerful group formerly known as the Quad: the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and National Security Agency. Now that the CIA has joined the consortium, they are known as the Quint.

Spurred by financial pressure and an increasingly mobile, tech-oriented workforce, the Quint is trying to break out of the "silos of secrecy" so they can find new ways to achieve their missions.

Much of the change in approach was unveiled at the GEOINT 2012 Symposium in San Antonio in October, where there were ubiquitous examples of how the Quint is using IT to become more efficient, save money and eradicate redundancies. Some top officials, including Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of NSA, and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, shared the progress on the move to the cloud and their ambitious plans for the future.

To appreciate what a shift this is for intelligence agencies, one must understand where they are coming from.

A bloated system

Until now, intelligence agencies have been able to sidestep information-sharing requirements and even fundamental transparencies expected of other agencies, particularly in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Intelligence officials generally resist discussing the community's inner workings or elaborate on its “unique security requirements,” but the Washington Post offered a peek into that world in its three-part exposé in July 2010, “Top Secret America: A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control” by Dana Priest and William Arkin.

After two years of research, Priest and Arkin highlighted the community's rampant waste and redundancy, noting that “51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.”

The reporters go on to describe the 1,271 agencies and 1,931 private companies that work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence programs at about 10,000 U.S. locations. There are also about 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances, many of them working in the 33 complexes that have sprung up in the Washington metro area since the terrorist attacks, accounting for about 17 million square feet of space, according to the report.

So getting those agencies to use the same basic approach to IT as the rest of the government will be pretty remarkable if and when it happens.

The ascent to the cloud

Moving intelligence agencies to the cloud will be a huge undertaking, but Alexander said the work is already under way.

“Within NSA and DOD, there are those 7 million pieces of IT infrastructure and systems and 15,000 different enclaves,” he said at GEOINT. "Our intent is to take that and collapse it down into a cloud-like structure."

He added that NSA has already reduced the number of help desks from 900 to 450 and plans to end up with only two. The agency will move all its databases to the cloud by the end of the year.

Alexander and other GEOINT speakers emphasized the community's accelerating use of thin-client technology, virtualization, and consolidated infrastructure and networks. They depicted those activities as solutions to a range of issues, including scarce funding, security, cyber defense and support for mobile forces, which are now driving the ascent to the cloud.

Although Clapper warned that the cloud is not a panacea, he said it is critical to achieving savings and bridging communication gaps.

A source close to the situation who spoke on background said the movement is a sign of progress.

“Policy, operations and technology all have to move together, and not that many people talk to each other across those areas,” the source said. “Now at least we’re getting people to the table to articulate the problems and see what we’re going to do.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a staff writer covering military networks for Defense Systems.

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