What Would an Intelligence Analyst’s Ideal Tool Look Like?

Jen Dunham, Solution Architect in SAS’s Security Intelligence Global Practice
Jen Dunham, Solution Architect in SAS’s Security Intelligence Global Practice

Guest Editorial by Jen Dunham, Solution Architect in SAS’s Security Intelligence Global Practice and former all-source intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army

If you are like most people, system upgrades or migrations are not met with excitement and open arms.

This is no different for our nation’s intelligence community.

While enhancements are generally seen as positive, they often come at a price. The price we pay in disrupting our status quo. During my nearly seven years as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, every major technology change brought trepidation.

As analysts, we knew that new technology could bring enhanced capabilities, but feared the awkward transition and initial learning curve.

It’s not because these were bad programs, we feared the time it would take to learn how to use the new products would significantly limit our ability to complete our mission.

While I am no longer in the Army, I have been fortunate enough to continue to work directly with analysts and investigators, sometimes with my sleeves rolled up – not just advising, but doing the work alongside them.

Today’s intelligence environment isn’t much different than the one I experienced.

There are new technological advancements, more widespread collaboration and a large influx of data, yet surprisingly, much of the same tactics and techniques used today have been commonly used for decades.

Shelfware (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Combatting Shelfware

While there are many analytic and investigative tools available in the marketplace, many struggle with the same common issue: usability.

The transition to new tools brought fear because they did not seem to be built with the analyst in mind.

Analysts and investigators need tools that present data in a simple yet understandable format. The tools need to be easy to set up and, most importantly, easy to use.

Most analysts have a specific focus area, which could include a specific location around the world, like Syria, or on a certain subject, such as IEDs.

Given the variety of focus areas, any analytic tool for intelligence analysts needs to be configurable.

With the amount of information intelligence organizations collect daily, it’s near impossible to remain on top of every single relevant piece of data.

Most analysts rely upon manual data searches, and set up ongoing searches in an attempt to lessen the burden of the process.  However, not all systems provide such capabilities.  If they do, they are often complex code or SQL-based, and while some analysts have this knowledge – most do not.

So, the need to have tools that are easy to configure by the end user is one way to ensure they are used and kept off those dusty shelves.

Data Visualization (Image Credit: SAS)

Data Visualization

Data visualization tools are common today, most of them providing some level of drag and drop functionality.

Yet, it is surprising how many analysts still use cumbersome spreadsheets to look at the data.

With the wide-range of offerings available, analysts still use tabular formats to just look through, sort or filter data.

The reason is simple: That’s the way they know how to do it. I’m guilty sometimes as well.

Data visualization can be extremely helpful in understanding the data and communicating findings to others, especially when dealing with very large amounts of data, but they must be easy to use and understandable to the end user, otherwise it’s back to good old spreadsheets.

In addition to rendering data in a variety of visual displays, filtering data is also highly important to an analyst.

Not all data is relevant to a particular issue, so the ability for the end user to easily be able to filter data and work with it in other ways is important.

Data Automation (Image Credit: SAS)

Power of Automation

While I could fill these pages with features intelligence analysts would want, the single most important tool is automation.

Analysts can be suspicious of automated processes, fearing potential loss or omission of data, or concerns with the reliability of computerized findings.

However, automation can streamline common processes such as data formatting and even prioritize content based upon defined criteria, such as focus area, high-risk activities or other data elements that can be developed into analytic scenarios or business rules.

This does not replace the need for the analyst or investigator, nor does it modify data or otherwise compromise the integrity of the information.

Rather, this process reduces redundant functions that can be easily handled programmatically and often better than manual processes that risk human error and scale to large volumes of data to ensure all content is reviewed and prioritized for the investigative analyst.

End users certainly can continue to interact with the information as they have in the past, and they benefit from a system of indicators and warnings based upon specific criteria relative to their work.

This speeds time to action, adds efficiencies to a predominately manually intensive process, and helps to prioritize workloads to focus in on high value content versus sifting through the digital avalanche for items of interest.

Advanced Analytics (Image Credit: SAS)

Advanced Analytics

Personally, I like the idea of using advanced analytics to help ‘jump start’ investigations because it helps us ensure a baseline of analysis capability, considering intelligence analysts and investigators vary in their experience and training.

Advanced analytics also provide valuable information to help understand context, which is at the core of this type of work; within law enforcement to derive motive or intent, or within intelligence to glean objectives and targets.

It is the people who often work 12-hour shifts, risk their lives in dangerous locations or carry the burden of knowing risks unseen to the average individual, who we can empower with a capability to help improve an already challenging and stressful job.

While it’s not a crystal ball, and can’t replace the “human-in-the-loop” so critical to our security at home and abroad, it’s enough value to help me remain confident in their capabilities despite the continuum of growing threats and information that accompany them.

I know I sure would have appreciated these capabilities.

(At SAS, we create for one simple reason – so you can turn today’s most critical challenges into tomorrow’s great decisions. Courtesy of SAS Software and YouTube)

About the Author:

Jen Dunham is a Solution Architect in SAS’s Security Intelligence Global Practice. She has a unique perspective on the challenges facing law enforcement and intelligence analysts.

Dunham, a former intelligence analyst with the US Army, has held a TSSCI security clearance with numerous agencies supporting organizations such as FBI, DEA, NSA, CIA and NCTC.