The Department of Defense has had some success in using new approaches to more effectively buy technology and services. Can the intelligence community follow suit?

That’s a key goal at the three- (and four-) letter agencies in charge of U.S. intelligence operations and spy powers, where officials are scrambling to keep pace with commercial technologies. Further complicating matters, they’re doing so against a backdrop of fast-changing, futuristic capabilities and public sensitivity to the government’s collection and use of personal information.

“We are at the point of changing times … for us to stay in business we have to be part of the driving force,” George Barnes, deputy director of the National Security Agency, said at an April 10 event held in Arlington, Virginia, by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

Changing the acquisition cycle to take advantage of commercial artificial intelligence, big data, cyber and other buzzy capabilities is critical, Barnes said. And while it’s “exhilarating,” it’s also “daunting” and a challenge for government bureaucracy to keep up, he said.

The event coincided with Capitol Hill testimony from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg related to widespread data privacy issues, Barnes said at NSA there’s “a dramatic recognition” of the role privacy concerns play.

Existing – and potentially evolving – rules for data collection and storage are “intricacies that complicate the integration of new technologies” that also remain compliant with federal authorities, Barnes said.

Machine-powered government overreach was also a subject of discussion.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Deputy Director Justin Poole downplayed scenarios in which artificial intelligence overruns the government.

“We’re in this baby-step approach, but full-blown AI running Defense or the intelligence community is not something we’re even close to,” Poole said. “Automation, augmentation, machine learning – a lot of work needs to be done there ... Those things are doable and trainable and we’re using them now to help analysts deal with the deluge of supply coming at them. We don’t have enough eyeballs.”

Officials are taking a multi-fold approach to reinventing acquisition, including working to institutionalize innovation within agencies and getting creative with existing buying powers. At more than one agency, including NGA, leaders are ordering internal restructuring to better take advantage of skills and talent, engage with outside players more effectively and improve processes up and down the chain of command.

”We need new and better ways of using the existing acquisition processes we all know and love … they don’t have to be as cumbersome as they have been,” Poole said. “There are ways to do things a little more innovatively. And we have to take advantage of all the different pathways … we have to embrace that kind of mentality.”

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