James Bond and Mission: Impossible (the original TV show and the movies) have colored the way we think of spy tech. Watching old spy movies, one would think intelligence gathering hinged on cigarette rocket launchers, courtesy of Q Branch, or impossibly lifelike masks.
And that's not completely wrong — if a bit overboard. Intelligence tools are often subtle and creative. But modern intelligence gathering is simultaneously less gaudy and far more effective than what's seen on the screen.
This was readily apparent at the 2016 Department of Defense Intelligence Information Systems (DoDIIS) Worldwide conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Aug. 1-3, where officials from DoD, the intelligence community and the private sector gathered to share the latest in intelligence tech.
Conference Coverage: DoDIIS Worldwide 2016
Instead of "spy gadgets" seen in the movies, modern intelligence tools are more about processing large amounts of data in real- or near-real-time to give operatives on the ground as much information as possible during missions.
For the CIA, this change has been a natural response to a shift in the way intelligence is gathered, according to Sean Roche, the agency's associate deputy director for digital innovation.
These days, open source intelligence — information gathered by culling publicly available sources — "is as valuable and more valuable everyday as the information we get clandestinely. The old story is that open source was always doing good things. But unless a paper was marked 'top secret,' it didn't seem to have the same weight. We know that not to be true today."
But that doesn't mean operatives aren't being equipped with the latest tech before going into the field.
Before being deployed, intelligence agents from the Defense Intelligence Agency are given a "flyaway kit" with all the tools they'll need to accomplish their mission.
"Exactly what's in there is evolving over time," according to James Harris, DIA's chief technology officer, who described Bond's quartermaster as the movie equivalent of an intelligence community CTO. Now that "technology has gotten to the point where you can put a cloud in a box," those kits are quickly becoming more about access to data than tradecraft gadgetry.
The modern intelligence operative's toolkit is more likely to be a laptop, tablet or smartphone and the gadgets are really apps designed to assist with advanced decision-making.
"We're looking at various sets of analytics," Harris explained. "Descriptive analytics that look for anomaly detection; diagnostic analytics that look at interactive visualization and giving that experience to the end user; predictive analytics that look at forecasting based on past data; prescriptive analytics that look at decision analysis and what-if scenarios so that a user can actually play out certain courses of action and predict what might happen; and finally — to me the most exciting area — is cognitive analytics," programs that, while not quite at the level of artificial intelligence, have the ability to make sense of data and patterns the way humans can.
"The flyaway kits that we have done for our leadership have been in the form of laptops — but I would envision someday it will be some sort of mobile, handheld device," DIA CIO Janice Glover-Jones said.
And there might even be a little Q Branch creativity in that process, Harris added.
The invention of small, low-cost processors like the Raspberry Pi means agency IT shops can "actually set up a series of very powerful, small computers the size of a credit card … and take that very powerful computing power wherever you need to go," he said.
And the vendor community is interested in helping those shops, as was clear on the conference exhibition floor.
"It's not very sexy compared to James Bond," said Romi Doshi, senior solutions marketing manager for MarkLogic. "But really if you look at the nuts and bolts it can become very powerful."
"They want to be able to have all the information at their fingertips and be able to rapidly search and look through it and correlate it with information on the battlefield and other intelligence operations," Derek Britton, analytics manager at SAS Federal, agreed. "It's not as sexy as what's seen on TV, for sure. But they will actually have all that information available and be able to sift through it very, very quickly. I think that's going to give us a big advantage."