Analysis: Cloud computing causes ‘cosmic shift’ in US spy community

Cloud computing

Cloud computing

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
While many are focusing on recent reports of arrests of CIA operatives in Lebanon and Iran, American intelligence planners have other things on their minds: the latest buzzword is ‘cloud’; specifically, ‘cloud computing’. The term means storing information and software on a network, which can then be shared on demand by users of interconnected electronic devices. The US intelligence community’s interest in this form of data organizing has been known for quite some time. But according to specialist publication Federal Computer Week, cloud computing is rapidly becoming a reality, as one after the other, US intelligence agencies are “moving their classified, sensitive information off their own servers and into the cloud”. Such a change “might have sounded crazy five years ago”, says FCW, and the fact that it is happening marks nothing less than a “cosmic shift” for American intelligence. The migration unto the cloud was spearheaded two years ago by the National Security Agency; the NSA was later joined by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the super-secretive National Reconnaissance Office. Soon the CIA wanted in: in 2009, Jill Tummler Singer, the CIA’s deputy Chief Intelligence Officer, told ComputerWorld that the CIA was becoming one of the US government’s strongest advocates for cloud computing, even though “the term really didn’t hit our vocabulary until a year ago”. Not everyone is super-excited about the cloud. Last year, Brian Snow, the NSA’s former Technical Director, said at a conference that he didn’t trust cloud services, mostly because of the existence of countless unpatched software vulnerabilities. But the move is heavily supported by two of America’s most senior intelligence officials: Keith Alexander, commander of US Cyber Command and director of NSA —America’s largest intelligence agency— and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Alexander recently told a conference that the NSA and the Department of Defense intend to amalgamate their “seven million pieces of IT infrastructure and systems and 15,000 different enclaves [...] into a [unified] cloud-like structure [...] by the end of the year”. Advocates of the cloud argue that the massive data migration will bridge communication gaps between intelligence agencies and satisfy the needs of an increasingly hi-tech and mobile workforce. But some observers —including this writer— suspect that the financial austerity, which is expected to hit the US intelligence budget next year, is at least partly responsible for this data consolidation, represented by cloud computing. And what about information assurance, you ask?  Good question. Earlier this month, Robert Bigman, chief of the CIA’s Information Assurance Group, lambasted information systems contractors for not providing the US government with the basic tools it needs to build a secure information infrastructure. “What we need”, said Bigman, “is a secure operating system [...]. We gave up some time ago on the battle to build a secure operating system, and we don’t have one”. Could the US intelligence community be running ahead of itself on this one?

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