CIA-backed IT firm offers view into the future
2011 09 27
Ed comment: Please listen to our interview with Cliff High from 2009 on "The Web Bot Project", someone who’s been doing this kind of web based language analysis for years:
Cliff High - Web Bot & Predicting the Future
...wonder why they didn’t get the CIA funding.
A CIA-backed Swedish-American company claims that it’s new technology can predict disease, terrorist threats, economic swings and resource shortages. The Local’s Karen Holst explores.
A look into the future may no longer require palm readings, star alignments or tarot cards after the release of a new technology purporting to be an all-encompassing oracle of the future.
The Swedish-American software company, Recorded Future, has developed a program that specialises in predictive analysis and with backers including the CIA investment arm In-Q-Tel, it is hoped that averting terrorist attacks could be one of its uses.
“It is a useful aid but prediction is always difficult. The world we face has wicked problems, and it’s important to understand that people like (Anders Behring) Breivik and Al-Qaeda are pretty savvy in concealing themselves through code words and disguised meanings,” says Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College (Försvarshögskolan) and one of Sweden’s foremost experts on Islamic terrorism.
Using what they coin as a ”temporal analytics engine,” their forecasting tool helps analysts predict events and trends by scanning hundreds of thousands of high-quality news publications, blogs, public niche sources, trade magazines, government web sites, financial databases and more.
The program then sifts through the myriad of publicly available information, looking to identify links, extract information, measure data and visualize information that reveals patterns of the past, present and the future probability of almost anything.
The company claims its tool to be so sensitive to data changes that it could even ”beat the news” and anticipate political crises, disease outbreaks, major market fluctuations, resource shortages and natural disasters, to a name a few.
And the world is listening. Both Google and the United States intelligence agency, the CIA, are financial backers of Recorded Future through their investment arms by In-Q-Tel and Google Ventures, respectively.
The Massachusetts-based Recorded Future’s concept appears to be a close cousin to similar data analysis tools that Dow Jones, Thomson Reuters and Selerity are building for the financial industry. Their idea is to develop a program that analyzes the news to predict how it will affect individual stocks and markets.
While the company offers tailored approaches to the financial arena, it extends its ability to harness the predictive power of the web and can provide analysis for almost any sector or industry.
In this new era of redefined terrorism and the threat of seemingly random attacks around any corner, could such software alter history and evade or thwart evil plots?
“It’s important to have this technology, to use it, and to understand its limits. In the end, it’s not going to be enough though – we need human interaction to sift through data,” says Magnus Ranstorp.
Recorded Future claims it can monitor terrorist activity by tracking the individuals who are attracting attention, who are connected and where they are travelling, to cite a few examples.
Ranstorp, who CNN named its principal terrorism expert following the September 11th attacks and who was invited to testify before the first hearing of the 9/11 Commission, concurs that this type of network analysis can reveal strengths in patterns of different types of relationships between individuals and entities but he points out it is also always limited to open source data.
“Terrorist related operators know what not to say and use closed chat rooms. But, even when trolling open source information, one still needs to know exactly what they are looking for,” says Ranstorp, adding that due to the complicated nature of terrorism, one small change can change and effect many other facets in a blink of an eye.
“No intelligence service has the man-power or man-hours to go through the tsunami of information that is on the web, but it is still a useful tool to indicate broad-based trends and patterns,” he concludes.
Other sectors Recorded Future can assist relate to marketing and branding, public relations, business intelligence and more.
For example, it can monitor the impact of an advertising campaign or view the momentum of online discourse over a period of time for brand analysis.
Naturally, the program transcends language barriers with the ability to understand all the ingenious devices of the human language, amplifying its effectiveness.
Not only does Recorded Future review events and entities, it has the capacity to analyze time and space dimension, meaning references to where and when an event has taken place, or even where and when it will take place.
This is only the tip of its soothsaying abilities. The rest lies buried in the endless undulation of open source information swirling online.
Of course, it is not a perfect tool as some phenomena, like the spontaneous volcano eruption in Iceland, are truly impossible to predict.
While admitting their algorithms are not perfect, Recorded Future believes that by gathering, interpreting and linking the information available to the world, it can effectively reveal all that mankind really does know about the future.
Red Ice Radio
Cliff High - Web Bot & Predicting the Future
Startups Backed By The CIA
Earlier this year In-Q-Tel put money into Recorded Future, a company that mines websites, blogs and Twitter accounts to "predict the future" by making "invisible links." The company says it’s also popular among Wall Street traders, too.
The spy agency has a venture capital arm that is funding an array of companies developing bleeding-edge technologies.
Tiny cameras. Hearing devices for the teeth. Wi-fi for refrigerators. These are some of the products made by companies that have caught the eye of In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency.
One of the most recent companies to get an infusion of cash from the U.S. spy bureau’s investment fund is Cleversafe, a Chicago-based startup that offers software to keep data stored in cloud networks secure by slicing it up and storing it in different locations. In a press release issued last month about the investment, William Strecker, In-Q-Tel’s chief technology officer, said the intelligence community is looking for new ways to secure information given the increasing ubiquity of cloud computing.
he country’s only federally funded venture capital firm was created in 1999, during the tech boom, because the private sector was setting the pace in technological innovation, leaving the intelligence community feeling not very intelligent. In-Q-Tel invests in startups developing technologies that could prove useful to the CIA and the national security community. But it knew it had to adjust to the Silicon Valley model to work. "The CIA had to offer Silicon Valley something of value, a business model that the Valley understood; a model that provides those who joined hands with In-Q-Tel the opportunity to commercialize their innovations," CIA official Rick Yannuzzi wrote in a briefing document for the Defense Intelligence Journal in 2001.
In-Q-Tel invites startups to submit applications for funding through its website, asking for their business plan, a technology whitepaper and leadership list. The operation’s budget is classified, but the Washington Post reported in 2005 that it received $37 million in funding yearly from the CIA. It tends to invest from $500,000 to $2 million in a given company.
In-Q-Tel issues a press release every time it funds a new company, but it discloses neither the amount of the investment nor the product it’s focused on. It’s believed that the relationship can lead to the development of off-market products tailored specifically for the CIA. A spokesman for one company funded by In-Q-Tel told Forbes that their investment was focused on a specific project with a yearlong deadline, declining to provide further details.
What technologies is the CIA interested in now? One clear area of focus is energy. In 2007 In-Q-Tel plugged into AdaptivEnergy, a company that develops products that harvest energy from impulse shocks, vibrations, and even footfalls. It also likes companies that are working on making smaller batteries, like Qynergy, a New Mexico-based company working on radioisotope batteries, and Infinite Power Solutions, a Colorado developer of thin-film batteries that can power RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tracking chips.
Speaking of RFID, In-Q-Tel seems to see potential there. In 2008 it invested in Massachusetts-based ThingMagic, a company that makes RFID chips that can "track anything." The Florida State Attorney’s Office for West Palm Beach uses them to track felony case files, and Ford offered them up as an additional feature for pickup trucks. A contractor can put the tags on all of his tools, so that a quick scan of the truck bed with an RFID scanner will reveal everything in there. ThingMagic was acquired last month by GPS device maker Trimble Navigation for an undisclosed amount. In-Q-Tel has also invested in GainSpan, a company finding ways to make everything wi-fi-enabled, from refrigerators to health monitoring devices, for richer information on something than just its location.
Experts say the next big trend in data is going to be geolocation, and the power to predict where you’re going to go next and who you spend the most time with. Several companies focusing on geospatial technology are in the In-Q-Tel portfolio, including Image Tree Corp., which can help show where illicit crops are being grown, and Fortius One and Geosemble, which map people, places and things instantly using location data from RSS feeds and tweets.
As one would expect from a spy support firm, In-Q-Tel is very interested in companies that make better cameras. Earlier this year, it sank money into LensVector, which is taking the moving parts out of cameras, employing electricity to change the focus of liquid crystal lenses; the company makes auto-focus devices that are dwarfed by pennies. IQT’s also interested in making sense of video shot by the increasing numbers of surveillance cameras. In 2005 it invested in 3VR, which creates video analytics to make surveillance video "Google-able."
Companies coming up with better ways to use and monitor the Internet have attracted In-Q-Tel money. Earlier this year it invested in Recorded Future, a company that mines websites, blogs and Twitter accounts to "predict the future" by making "invisible links." The company says it’s also popular among Wall Street traders.
Intelligence agencies are increasingly interested in mining open-source intelligence, particularly online, but the proliferation of voices, whether on social networks, blogs, or elsewhere, can be challenging to make sense of. Visible Technologies, FMS and StreamBase, all companies that provide products that analyze the massive amount of data flowing out of social networking and communication sites, all found spots in the In-Q-Tel portfolio.
In-Q-Tel has some fun investments, like Destineer Studios, an outfit that develops military-themed videogames as well as training simulations for active-duty soldiers.
The espionage potential of many of the technologies in the In-Q-Tel portfolio are immediately apparent, but there are some surprises, like Sonitus Medical, which makes hearing aids that fit over the teeth and send sounds directly to the inner ear.
Is involvement with the CIA good for business? A connection to the CIA can be a slight disadvantage for companies when doing business overseas, particularly in China or the Middle East, where people are leery of the affiliation with the intelligence agency.
However, entrepreneurs generally welcome interest from In-Q-Tel, says Basis Technology CEO Carl Hoffman, because it’s a gateway to Washington for small companies that normally struggle to compete for federal contracts. An investment from In-Q-Tel led Hoffman’s company, which makes software that analyzes foreign-language texts, to expand to Middle Eastern languages, and it now does business with a variety of federal agencies, including the NSA. He says that IQT is also well regarded in Silicon Valley because of its successful investing track record. "When we mention to other Silicon Valley investment firms that In-Q-Tel is one of our investors, that earns us brownie points."
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