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The Intelligence Workstation of the Future

The Intelligence Workstation of the Future will empower analysts in new ways, combining the most modern analytical and visualization tools with enterprise security and governance technologies. This post explores this workstation, leading to actionable recommendations that organizations can put in place now to bring this concept to reality sooner vice later.

Note: A video presentation on this topic can be found on our OODA Video On Demand Page

The features of the workstation described below are applicable broadly, but I have chosen to focus this description on the needs of the all source intelligence analysts who works in support of the national security community. I’m thinking of analysts at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The National Security Agency (NSA), The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), The National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), and intelligence analysts in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Marines and warfighting commands, including US Cyber Command. These analysts work on critical issues where large quantities of data must be accessed and evaluated, collaboration across domains is key, and dynamic adversaries are working to hide their intentions. This workforce is tackling issues of critical importance and should be enabled with the best possible tools in support of their missions.

The Need For Improvement:

Analysts in the national security domain have always had it tough. They work hard issues that involve topics like gleaning adversary intentions when adversaries are taking active measures to hide what they are up to or deceive us through active measures. And there have always been serious counterintelligence issue that require analysts in the national security domain to protect their own analysis. But now things are getting even harder. Two major trends are changing the already hard world of the national security analyst:

  • The overwhelming amount of data in the information age, which provides both opportunity and significant challenges to the analyst community, and
  • The need to empower analysts to address the increasingly complex geopolitical landscape, where threats to national security move at the speed of light.

The Design Philosophy

The most critical function of this new workstation is to serve as an interface between two worlds: The tech driven domain of cyberspace and the heuristics driven brain of the analyst. This drives the design approach. The design will enable humans to do what they do best and have computers do what they do best.

  • The Role of the Human: Thinking, analyzing, imagining, creating, collaborating and producing mission impacting analysis.
  • The Role of the Workstation: Visualize, automate, iterate, correlate, communicate and obey. Do this where the human needs it done, securely.

This new workstation should also be designed to leverage the very best available technologies, both at the workstation and in the cloud.

  • Technology in the Cloud: To the greatest extent possible, processing for this workstation will be done in the enterprise cloud. The workstation will be able to access holdings on any cloud required for the task at hand.
  • Technology of the Workstation: The many individual components of this workstation will operate as a unified whole focused on the user and their mission needs. To the greatest extent possible, these components will be commercially available components available on the market today.
  • Leverage The Best Available Technology: Designing a new workstation provides an opportunity to select new technologies to meet the emerging needs of the analytical workforce, including the most modern commercially available technology produced by the creative genius of the innovative American technology sector. The use of government produced software in this workstation or its cloud based components will be by exception only.

This design philosophy of focusing on the human and leveraging the cloud when possible and focusing on commercial software and hardware will be a consistent theme in the overall design of this new workstation.

Technical Requirements of the Intelligence Workstation of the Future

We continually survey the state of innovation in analytical tools including tracking very closely the solutions being fielded by large commercial enterprises, large IT firms and startups. We track the status of artificial intelligence solutions and the best practices for leveraging AI against real world analytical problems. We also track best practices in data management and ways to leverage the cloud to the benefit of users. Our continuous tracking of this market and our deep background in intelligence analysis has allowed us to capture a list of technical considerations that will help make the Intelligence Workstation of the Future a reality. We phrase these considerations in the form of requirements we believe should drive this next generation workstation:

Visualization: The highest bandwidth channel into the human brain is our eyes. This makes the computer visualization system a critical component of any intelligence workstation. Fortunately commercially available screens are available with incredibly high resolution enabling high quality visualization, so the screen component of this requirement will be easy to meet. Harder to meet is the need for computing power to drive fast moving visualizations of large data files including satellite drone imagery, high definition video or most high quality computer aided design applications. Visualizing these in a way that enables analysts to interact with data requires as well thought-out back end infrastructure that can provide a virtual desktop to a workstation, and for most analysts this virtual desktop will need to be enhanced with server side Graphical Processing Units (GPUs) to enable the high speed interaction with data that analysts require.

Immersive: A growing number of all source analysts will benefit from an ability to immerse themselves in information leveraging virtual reality and/or augmented reality. The workstation of the future will make this immediately available to any analyst using commercially available headsets and controls designed to work with with the workstation as part of an integrated experience.

Automation: Analysts today spend too much time on systems doing rote tasks that computers could do for them. This has given rise to an entire discipline of automated tools called Robotic Process Automation or RPA. RPA tools can provide analysts with their own ability to automate common tasks like logging into databases, filling out forms, disseminating results and even more complex workflows unique to separate agencies and offices. Every rote task that can be automated can free up the human analyst to do what they do best, making RPA a clear part of the workstation of the future.

Iteration: Analysts working complex problems like those in the national security space may start with a desire to know something about a topic or perhaps even a question they need to research but in almost every case the results they uncover in their research will lead to more questions. The faster the computer is at presenting information and taking feedback based on that information the more empowering it is for the analyst. This means every component of the workstation of the future must be built for speed.

Correlation: From a technical standpoint, correlation is the assessment that one piece of data is somehow associated with another. When computers can assist humans in finding places where data correlates it can save significant human time for higher order analysis, making this an important function of the intelligence workstation of the future. While this basic point sounds simple, the fact is that progress in this domain is not keeping up with the amount of data available to analysts.

Data Analysis: The workstation must provide analysts with a full range of data analysis tools relevant to the needs of the mission. These may include old fashioned spreadsheets and traditional business intelligence tools as well as high end self-serve data analytics tools that allow analysts to import and work with their own data. This underscores the fact that analysts using the workstation of the future must have access to all relevant data for the enterprise, which in most cases requires use of a big data platform designed for user self service. Analysts at this workstation should also have access to any commercial analytical tool available to meet their mission needs, on demand.

Imagery and Video Analysis: As mentioned above, analysts using the workstation of the future will be able to visualize extremely large images and video feeds. But analysis is far more than just viewing. Depending on the mission needs, analysts may need to measure, compare, search, and process large imagery and video files and will need to interact over them in real time. Increasingly computer vision tools will be applied to help the analysts glean knowledge from imagery and video. Key requirements include automatic detection of features, objects and behaviors. This must all be done in real time with zero latency due to processing. Architectural solutions that do this are available now, with the most high performance solutions leveraging high powered computers in servers with specialized computer chips (Graphics Processing Unit or GPU) that deliver their performance via a virtual desktop environment. To the analysts it seems like they have a supercomputer on their desk, but the real power is in the enterprise cloud.

Communication: National security analysts today leverage multiple domains of classified information and those normally come in via multiple communication circuits and are presented to the analyst in multiple ways, few ways centered on the human who needs to work with the data coming in on these circuits. The intelligence workstation of the future will enable analysts to seamlessly work across multiple levels of classification. Analysts operating at a top secret level can browse down to secret or even unclassified data, for example, and bring any information they need to up to higher domains. Analysts who need to produce data authorized for lower levels will be able to move that data from higher domains with little risk of information compromise, better enabling support to decision-makers who may be operating at other domains. Solutions are available right now that enable this type of secure data movement.

Collaboration: Analysis of complex issues involve collaboration with a broad range of stakeholders that can include other analysts inside or outside the organization. Subject matter experts who may not have any access to organizational resources will at times need to be made part of a collaborative effort. Collaboration must also be enabled with consumers of the work product of analysts. In some cases, collaboration must be enabled with allied nations and there are times when analysts may even have to collaborate with nation’s whose interests are normally hostile to our nation’s but are temporarily aligned for a particular operation. Fortunately, collaborative tools exist that enable organizations to facilitate secure collaboration among multiple parties in ways that ensure only authorized entities are involved in the discussion. These tools can allow voice, video, data, email and chat. Other collaboration capabilities are built into data fabrics that enable dispersed groups to operate over the same data and see, in real time, insights being created by others.

Shared Models, Methods and Collaboration over Common Data: The direct human to human collaboration between analysts can be enhanced by ensuring users of the Intelligence Workstation of the Future can also collaborate in the construction of solutions, which may take the form of sharing algorithms and models used over data. By enabling analysts to access repositories of models and methods, knowledge of best practices and best approaches can be built upon for future use. Collaboration over common data in ways that give analysts a shared, common operational picture is also key to maximizing the contributions of experts on understanding a situation.

Security: As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, our nation’s adversaries will be trying to steal our secrets. It is our job to make it harder for them to do so, while not allowing security features to impede the critical functions of our analysts. Security features of the intelligence workstation of the future will include methods to ensure that only authorized users are accessing the system and that no data from the workstation is accessible to any unauthorized user. These assurances must be made no matter where that workstation is. Security solutions in our future workstation may include visual recognition of the analyst sitting at the workstation, as well as auditing, logging and analysis of analyst activities. Security will be enhanced by doing all data processing in enterprise cloud systems and not allowing data to be stored locally.

Human Control and Input: We expect the primary means of human input to the Intelligence Workstation of the Future to be the current keyboard and mouse, but increasingly analysts will also leverage trackpads, touch screens, stylus devices, voice and gesture. When analysts are using immersive environments hand held controllers will likely be used. All these input methods are in place on commercial devices today and analysts can use them to more quickly and fluidly iterate with their systems

Next Steps: Build use cases relevant to your organization

The above was a survey of capabilities we know the workstation of the future can embody. But they can be implemented many ways. To determine the best way to implement these for your organization we recommend fleshing out use cases that describe how your analysts would perform if they had a system with features like those articulated above.

Consider the three scenarios below as starting points as you build out your organizational use cases:

  • The Analyst In The Net: An analyst inside a government facility using an Intelligence Workstation of the Future with direct access to all relevant communications circuits and data. This analyst will at times need to contact subject matter experts in other agencies by email, voice, video, chat and at times will collaborate with them directly over the same data sets. The analyst will also, at times, need to contact subject matter experts from industry and academia.
  • The Forward Deployed Analyst: An analyst working outside of their organization unit, deployed for an operation, potentially with a military unit which may involve allied nations. Use cases may also involve the need to collaborate with individuals from nations that are hostile to the US. Analysts using the workstation of the future must be able to do so with measures in place that reduce risk of compromise of organization data but enable direct support to the mission. Collaboration with other analysts back at the organizational headquarters is expect to be continuous including collaboration over the same datasets.
  • The Analyst at Home: For certain designated national security analysts, the workstation of the future will enable work from facilities that are not subject to the traditional amount of physical security seen in government organizations. This may include settings in temporary facilities that have never been inspected or certified to store classified information, which may even include the home of the analyst. The workstation of the future will need to enable this work in ways that reduce risk to compromise of enterprise data, but allow the analyst to do their job.

Concluding thoughts:

The goal of the intelligence workstation of the future is to serve analysts in ways never before possible due to previous limitations on technology. By enabling analysts to get the information they need, the way they want it, and have the tools they need to operate on that data, wherever they are, analysts can better serve the serious missions they are tasked with supporting.

Through building use cases relevant to your organization you can turn the list of requirements for a workstation of the future into an actionable criteria of design that will make this workstation a reality sooner vice later.

Technologies exist to enable this workstation today.

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OODA LLC, the technology research and advisory firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity which publishes Bob is the co-host of the popular podcast The OODAcast. Bob has been an advisor to dozens of successful high tech startups and has conducted enterprise cybersecurity assessments for businesses in multiple sectors of the economy. He was a career Naval Intelligence Officer and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Find Bob on Defcon.Social