Intelligence agency getting help from the private sector

Reagan Ritterbush

In a “massive” transformation to the way it handles data, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, NGA, is partnering with professionals in the private sector.

“I know the word ‘massive’ is overused, but still,” NGA director Robert Cardillo said. “We have more data than ever before, and working with people who understand that data will help us exponentially.”

The NGA is a part of the U.S. intelligence community and provides geographic data to government policymakers, intelligence professionals, the military and first responders. Cardillo, in a speech at Bass Lecture Hall on Tuesday night, said he has to engage with companies such as Uber and Lyft so the agency can learn their methods of using geospatial data and apply them to their own system. 

Geospatial data uses maps and satellites to locate where specific people and things are.

“The most significant advances in my profession are going to happen in the private sector,” Cardillo said. “Most of what happens today will affect tomorrow, and I want to be ahead of everything that happens within the government and outside it as well.”

As part of a series of lectures hosted by the Intelligence Studies Project at UT, Cardillo, who has been a member of the intelligence community since the early 1980s and head of the NGA since 2014, said efforts to acquire data for geospatial intelligence have been made only, until recently, by the government and some large contractors.

“The way the world works now, this practice isn’t useful anymore,” Cardillo said. “The democratization of this planet has led to the idea that anyone can look at anything, and so the government can’t monopolize data anymore.”

Cardillo said the process has not been negative so far, and his agency is optimistic about what comes of their transformation.

“We are very proud of our history and our support,” Cardillo said. “Mostly, we are proud of what we can do on the humanitarian front, whether it’s fighting Ebola in Nepal or (assisting) those recovering from floods in the United States. We want to do more with the help of professionals outside the government.”

Computer science senior Abbas Ally said he thinks talking to people outside the government will help intelligence agencies be more transparent.

“If our intelligence community holes itself up and doesn’t talk to people from all backgrounds and professions, society becomes suspicious of what’s really going on behind the curtain,” said Ally, who has an interest in working in the intelligence community. “Engagement pulls that curtain back and shows us there isn’t anything to worry about.”

Cardillo said he hopes involving the private sector will open up opportunities for the government to make better decisions.

During the question-and-answer portion of the night, Stephen Slick, director of the Intelligence Studies Project, asked Cardillo about how his conversations with the sector have gone so far.

“Sometimes private sectors aren’t enamored by working with the government or intelligence community,” Slick said. “I wonder if their distrust in the government has affected the NGA’s ability to engage with them.”

Cardillo said the most important thing for his agency to remember is that change is needed to better understand the data the agency has acquired.

“The way we communicate and store data is different now,” Cardillo said. “Everything is digitized, and we need to focus on making a system out of that. A confident system is a good system, but lacking confidence can lead to bad consequences.”