CIA to software vendors: A revolution is coming

The logo of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is shown in the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Reuters/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency told software vendors on Tuesday that it plans to revolutionize the way it does business with them as part of a race to keep up with the blazing pace of technology advances.

Rather than stick with traditional all-you-can-eat deals known as “enterprise licensing agreements,” the CIA wants to buy software services on a “metered,” pay-as-you-go basis, Ira “Gus” Hunt, the agency’s top technology officer, told an industry conference.

“Think Amazon,” he said, referring to the electronic commerce giant where the inventory is vast but the billing is per item. “That model really works.”

The old way of contracting for proprietary software inhibits flexibility, postponing the CIA’s chance to take advantage of emerging capabilities early on, Hunt said.

He added that this made it harder to keep up with “big data” at a time that such challenges are growing while federal agencies are tightening their belts for deficit reduction.

The CIA does not comment on how much it spends on its software licenses nor other details of its budget because they are classified, said Preston Golson, an agency spokesman. He did not immediately respond to a query about whether the CIA already had begun to recast its software licenses.

Intelligence analysts use programs from companies such as Oracle Corp, SAP AG and Hewlett Packard Co to sift through vast data sets to provide insights, warning and opportunities to the president of the United States and other decision makers.

Hunt made his remarks at a conference on emerging technologies organized by the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association’s Washington D.C. chapter.

Replying to a question, he said the CIA would be willing to give vendors with security clearances a “peek under the covers” to address any doubt about whether it was fairly accounting for proprietary software used under any pay-as-you-go deal.

“Don’t kid yourself that we can’t do this thing because we can,” he said, adding that the agency was seeking to build strong partnerships with its information technology suppliers.

“We’re not out there trying to screw you,” Hunt told representatives of the many vendors present. But “you really need to think differently about how we do these things,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Reginald Brothers, deputy assistant secretary of defense for research, told the conference that existing software tools for data analysis, management and interaction lagged the vast amounts of information that drones and other high-tech U.S. military sensors were vacuuming up.

“The big data problem is the analysis of it,” he said. Existing tools “do not aid users … in the mission timelines.”

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