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October 17, 2013
Discovering and Derailing Asymmetric Threats

The Earth Imaging Journal staff has watched geospatial technology evolve for nearly two decades, and we long have recognized the important contributions the industry has made across a host of critical disciplines. But never before has the power of “where” been more vital to the intelligence community and our nation’s security in terms of addressing the modern reality of asymmetric threats.

For the past several decades, asymmetric threats have been gaining traction as a common form of warfare throughout the world. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., divides asymmetric threats into six categories: nuclear, chemical, biological, information operations, operational concepts and terrorism.

The sophisticated technology employed by rogue nations and terrorist organizations in executing asymmetric strikes in many ways has leveled the playing field, allowing them to increase the effectiveness of transforming a local event into global upheaval, as in the dramatic case of 911. Thus, the intelligence community is tasked ever more with fighting fire with fire—or, in this case, technology with technology.

Underscoring Technology’s Importance

If there’s any doubt about the thirst for more and better technology within the intelligence community, look no further than the new National Security Agency (NSA) data facility in Utah, which reportedly will be operational by the end of September 2013. According to a Forbes report, high estimates of how much data it can handle have mentioned a staggering five zettabytes (1,000 zettabytes = 1 million exabytes = 1 billion petabytes = 1 trillion terabytes—you would need only 400 terabytes to hold every book ever written in every language).

Brewster Kahle, who engineered the Internet Archive, offers a far more conservative estimate of around 12 exabytes. That’s still a lot of storage. According to Kahle, the facility could be capable of storing every phone call made in the United States during an entire year with only 2 percent of that capacity. And, according to Moore’s Law, experts claim the capacity should double every 18 months.

Leveraging Activity-Based Intelligence

Mirroring NSA’s advanced technology needs to collect, store and analyze its vast sea of data, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) faces the complex challenge of sifting through a seemingly infinite amount of geospatial data collected by a burgeoning array of sophisticated sensors. This challenge never has been more evident than in NGA’s current focus on activity-based intelligence (ABI).

The evolving ABI paradigm provides a powerful way to understand and analyze threats posed by sophisticated adversarial networks as they themselves employ the Internet and big data as tools to advance asymmetric threats. The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense calls ABI, “a discipline of intelligence where the analysis and subsequent collection is focused on the activity and transactions associated with an entity, population or area of interest.”

In other words, instead of focusing on a specific target, volumes of data on activities in a given area are gathered over time and stored for later metadata searches. Multiple data sources are integral components of ABI. Georeferencing and metatagging allow analysts to use custom tools to sift through large stores of data and display information that can reveal how various activities and events intersect in meaningful ways.

Many exhibitors at this year’s GEOINT Symposium are focused on ABI technology and its far-reaching potential. Additionally, turn to page 38 for an overview of ABI and how it benefits GEOINT analysts.

— By Jeff Specht, publisher, Earth Imaging Journal

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