On September 14, 2017, Georgetown University hosted the George T. Kalaris Intelligence Conference in collaboration with the National Geospatial Agency (NGA). The conference, honoring one of the most important case officers in CIA history, focused on the evolving state-of-the-art for the intelligence community, and the role technology played in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data. The role of big data featured prominently in all the panels, with participants emphasizing the wealth of information available versus the difficulties in understanding and sorting it into actionable intelligence. This challenge was evident beginning with the first panel, featuring a conversation between NGA Director Robert Cardillo and the New York Times’ reporter, Eric Schmitt. Director Cardillo explained that given the restraints on technology acquisition, government increasingly find itself outmatched by the private sector in terms of resources available for analysis, putting it at a disadvantage relative to the country’s adversaries. Director Cardillo explained that these limitations impelled his initiative for greater collaboration at NGA with private corporations like Giant Oak, whom have both the talent and know-how to use vast computing powers for analysis of NGA’s immense storehouses of data.

In a later panel, Giant Oak’s own CEO Gary Shiffman expanded on these challenges by explaining that it is not just a matter of resources or talent, but acknowledging the biases inherent in all data available. To highlight this point, Dr. Shiffman explained how data itself only captures impressions of the world, and requires a critical mind to recognize these limitations inherit within to unlock its value and potential. These arguments elaborated by Director Cardillo and Dr. Shiffman served as thematic undercurrents for the rest of the discussions centering on the practical application of big data and technology to issues as diverse as terrorism and radicalization, human-intelligence (HUMINT) collection, and intelligence sharing among partner nations. These points were synthesized best by John Mulligan, Deputy Director for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), who talked about the ongoing challenges of collating all available data for the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), as it expands physically and virtually.

Technology has always changed how intelligence services gather information. The struggle, as the Kalaris Conference showed, is not so much in whether countries collect it, but how to change epistemic paradigms to understand it. Returning to Dr. Shiffman’s comments, in our current era, the struggle is not about lacking data, but in having the capacity to understand it and the humility to recognize its limitations.