CIA is Using AWS Cloud to Stay Ahead of Threats

(Photo: CIA.gov)

Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) re:Invent conference achieved the impossible dream: 850 public sector technology professionals awake at 7 a.m. in Las Vegas. At the public sector keynote, Teresa Carlson, VP worldwide public sector AWS, highlighted the new AWS Secret Region. The Secret Region was designed for the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and can operate workloads up to the Secret U.S. security classification level.

“We are the first and only commercial cloud provider now that can service our customers and government workloads across the full range of top secret, secret, sensitive, and classified,” Carlson said. “The nice thing about this region is that it’ll be utilized by, of course, the U.S. intelligence agencies, the U.S. Department of Defense, and other government agencies that have these secret workloads.”

Prior to the launch of the Secret Region, CIA was already using AWS’ GovCloud offerings to monitor social media and stay ahead of terrorist threats. Teresa Smetzer, director of digital futures at CIA, was on hand to share how the CIA is fostering a culture of continuous innovation.

In 2013, CIA made the move to the commercial cloud as part of a public-private partnership with AWS GovCloud.

“It was very risky initially,” Smetzer said. “We weren’t really sure how it would play out. We’ve dramatically overachieved in terms of moving workload to the cloud and being able to enable new capabilities we couldn’t have even imagined.”

Though CIA has only been using the Secret Region for a week, Smetzer called the implications of the new region “stunning.” Smetzer explained that the new region allows for stronger interoperability across all levels of data classification within the 16 intelligence agencies. Meaning, all of the agencies are now using a common set of tools, have access to the latest technologies, and can scale rapidly. Aside from enhancing efficiency and effectiveness, cloud computing has been a “game changer” for how the IC delivers its mission, Smetzer said.

For IC, data isn’t an afterthought, it’s the lifeblood. With rapidly growing and changing communication channels, IC must now deal with far more data than it ever has. Today’s IC analyst must be able to deal with an enormous variety, volume, and velocity of information. Cloud enables IC analysts to quickly sort, search, and understand data.

“Cloud reduces searches from hours and days to minutes and seconds,” Smetzer said. “Minutes matter in our world.”

Improving speed means IC can be proactive, rather then reactive. CIA’s anticipatory intelligence cell uses machine learning and data science to analyze past events to determine future issues of instability, Smetzer said. These predictions can be shared with policymakers to help keep them ahead of threats.

Smetzer also specifically called out social media as a priority for CIA and other intelligence agencies. While it is essential for IC to monitor social media, the sheer number of users and the rapid style of communication makes effective monitoring a challenge.

“Our cloud computing capability allows us to understand sentiment analysis in a way that helps us look at instability and other factors that are of concern worldwide,” she said.

AWS has also partnered with IC on two other projects that promote continuous innovation: a Silicon Valley Innovation Outpost and a custom AWS Marketplace. The Innovation Outpost is essentially a partnership between Amazon and IC that enables IC to innovate with mission and engagement with the tech industry to come up with new solutions and strategies. The custom AWS marketplace helps IC  download and deploy technology quickly. Smetzer says the marketplace enables CIA and other agencies to fail cheap and fail quick. By streamlining the traditionally complicated and time-consuming government procurement process, IC can keep pace with the private sector in terms of deploying the latest technologies.

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