The intelligence community is coming to grips with the power of commercial data

Intelligence analysis has long relied on data generated by people on the ground and signals in the air. Now the discussion within defense and intelligence circles centers on the potential of data available for sale, so-called commercial intelligence. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the CEO of Govini, Tara Murphy Dougherty.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
What is going on? You do sell data to the government, and many, many other firms have commercial data. Mostly for availability to the commercial marketplace. There’s hundreds of sources. What is the big deal in the intelligence world these days that you’re seeing?

Tara Murphy Dougherty
There’s a shift that is definitely taking place within the intelligence space. And we have seen this shift, which is bigger than the past two years, really come to a forefront. Over the past, I’d say 12 to 18 months, the war in Ukraine has played a particular role in highlighting this phenomenon, which seems to be a shift in the dominance that the national security apparatus of the United States has had for decades now. Not just generating intelligence, but also processing it and making sense of it. These are areas where actually the commercial sector in the United States is wildly outpacing the federal government, including [Defense Department]. And that reality is starting to hit the desks of intel officers and analysts in particular.

Tom Temin
Now, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is well known to be using commercial mapping and Earth terrestrial view satellite data, commercial data. They openly talk about how much they’ve inculcated in the past years. But what are other types of data besides geophysical that is widely available, that could be of use to the intelligence community?

Tara Murphy Dougherty
I would commend NGA and pointing them as a leader in this space. And we’ll come back to why I think they’re the perfect example of being at the forefront of this trend. But to your question about additional types of sources, Tom, I would point people to something that they’re very familiar with recently, which is the COVID maps and public health data as another example. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit us in spring of 2020, for the following or subsequent months after that outbreak in January through March, we saw, everywhere, the growth of public data being put to use to understand an emergency situation. That’s a great example of data that is not just publicly available in some spheres, but in commercial spheres, is collected, is transformed into a high fidelity asset. And then it’s linked with other data. Think about data that tells you information about demographics, or people’s movement around the world. It was that process of ultimately combining those high fidelity datasets and doing so at scale that helped us, not just understand what was happening with the pandemic, but start to get our arms around a response. And so from public health to military operations, and national security intelligence, this trend is impacting that wide of a range of activities.

Tom Temin
And you mentioned the war in Ukraine. And you might as well call it a proxy war that we’re having with Russia. And so through Ukraine, what is the role of commercial intelligence, do you think in that particular sphere?

Tara Murphy Dougherty
I think it falls right in the middle of national security intelligence, which is that intelligence that is traditionally collected, processed to analyze, disseminated by U.S. government agencies, or by government agencies. Which continues to have a really important role to play. And then [Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)] on the other end of the spectrum, which is becoming somewhat problematic in today’s world, where anybody with a Twitter account can claim to be an intelligence analyst. Some of the information that people on the ground at the individual level are providing has been very valuable and insightful and drives credible media sources. And some of it is total junk.

Tom Temin
Sometimes it drives them right off the cliff.

Tara Murphy Dougherty
Exactly. So commercially sourced intelligence is taking that data that is not just available to government entities, and it’s putting a significant amount of credibility and work into validating it and then improving it. Such that it’s not just good enough for government decision makers, it’s good enough for the commercial marketplace. And I would argue that being market tested, especially in the United States, where you have very discerning buyers in both the public and private sectors is a real test and a challenging one.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Tara Murphy Dougherty, she is CEO of Govini. And the experience, the LexisNexises, the Recorded Futures, companies like that, that have different datasets that they offer, both commercially and to the government. Most of that is used in the area of identity validation, and a way of certifying people are who they say they are. As it operates in the background. What are some other possible applications of commercial data like that?

Tara Murphy Dougherty
Well, I would go back to your NGA example and point to the geographic or geospatial information, that is not just available, but really is better than what a lot of government agencies are collecting. And this is driven not just by commercial companies that are doing great things with data, but commercial companies that are putting assets into space, on their own dime in order to generate this information. Certainly, what we have seen as a business within the national security sector is a gap in understanding what’s happening in the rest of the global marketplace. Outside of what happens inside the five sided building of the Pentagon, or the U.S. federal government. And so over the past 15 years, we’ve seen government agencies put a lot of effort and focus into improving their internal data management. Getting their arms around their own data systems. And that gives them a better view down and into their agencies. What DoD and others need to recognize is that they’re global enterprises. And therefore, they need data about companies, about capabilities, about the capital associated with them, that is also global, or provides that external global view. That data has to be embraced in order for them to not just effectively operate, but really for the United States to effectively counter China who is doing this very well.

Tom Temin
Yes, I wonder if commercial consumer trend type of data would be useful, if it’s available, and it often is. And the classic example of what used to be considered sensitive information in the Pentagon, and you’ve heard this example 1,000 times. Well, if a certain unit of the military suddenly start stockpiling toilet paper, well, then, you know, troops might be on the move. And if an enemy knew that they could discern some future pattern of the U.S. military. By the same token, could consumer trends like that, somehow inform intelligence and national security?

Tara Murphy Dougherty
Absolutely. America’s free enterprise system, and the data generated by the markets has always been a tremendous part of our global advantage. It’s a big part of the American way. And we’ve put up a lot of data silos over the past 30 years as data has proliferated in availability. Getting back to embracing data, the kind you’re talking about, of turning that data from just free enterprise activity into actual military hard power, is actually exactly what Govini is dedicated to doing and exactly what the United States needs to do.

Tom Temin
Now, Govini does artificial intelligence powered examinations of big data across all of the spending that’s happening in the military and the government. Have you discerned the pattern of acquisition of commercial databases? Besides their own.

Tara Murphy Dougherty
As meta as it is, we have absolutely looked at this question. And the data shows that spending has been relatively stable. There has not been a dramatic shift over the past 10 years in the amount of money that the Department of Defense, in particular, is spending on commercial data. I suspect that we’re going to start to see a change in that very quickly here. And even looking at 2022 data, which is something that we’ll do starting next month, might tell a different story, because of exactly what we’ve talked about with respect to the phenomenon happening with geospatial intelligence, commercially sourced intelligence, with respect to military operations in Europe.

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