Google has lots to do with intelligence
Sunday, March 30, 2008
When the nation's intelligence agencies wanted a computer network to better share information about everything from al Qaeda to North Korea, they turned to a big name in the technology industry to supply some of the equipment: Google Inc.
The Mountain View company sold the agencies servers for searching documents, marking a small victory for the company and its little-known effort to do business with the government.
"We are a very small group, and even a lot of people in the federal government don't know that we exist," said Mike Bradshaw, who leads Google's federal government sales team and its 18 employees.
The strategy is part of a broader plan at Google to expand beyond its consumer roots. Federal, state and local agencies, along with corporations and schools, are increasingly seen by the company as lucrative sources of extra revenue.
In addition to the intelligence agencies, Google's government customers include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the state of Alabama and Washington, D.C.
Many of the contracts are for search appliances - servers for storing and searching internal documents. Agencies can use the devices to create their own mini-Googles on intranets made up entirely of government data.
Additionally, Google has had success licensing a souped-up version of its aerial mapping service, Google Earth. Agencies can use it to plot scientific data and chart the U.S. coastline, for example, giving ships another tool to navigate safely.
Spy agencies are using Google equipment as the backbone of Intellipedia, a network aimed at helping agents share intelligence. Rather than hoarding information, spies and analysts are being encouraged to post what they learn on a secure online forum where colleagues can read it and add comments.
"Each analyst, for lack of a better term, has a shoe box with their knowledge," said Sean Dennehy, chief of Intellipedia development for the CIA. "They maintained it in a shared drive or a Word document, but we're encouraging them to move those platforms so that everyone can benefit."
The system is modeled after Wikipedia, the public online, group-edited encyclopedia. However, the cloak-and-dagger version is maintained by the director of national intelligence and is accessible only to the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and an alphabet soup of other intelligence agencies and offices.
Agents can log in, depending on their clearance, to Intellipedia's three tiers of service: top secret, secret and sensitive but unclassified. So far, 37,000 users have established accounts on the network, which contain 35,000 articles encompassing 200,000 pages, according to Dennehy.
Google supplies the computer servers that support the network, as well as the search software that allows users to sift through messages and data.
Dennehy declined to asses the quality of Google's products, but he applauded the contribution that Intellipedia can make to the government's work. Whether the network actually leads to better intelligence will largely depend on agents sharing some of their most important files and then their colleagues chiming in with incisive commentary - issues that are out of Google's hands.
Normally, Google ranks results on its consumer site by using the number of links to a Web page as a barometer of its importance. Doing so on Intellipedia isn't as effective because the service lies behind a firewall and is used by a limited number of people.
Instead, material gets more prominent placement if it is tagged, or appended by the network's users, with descriptive keywords.
Because of the complexities of doing business with the government, Google uses resellers to process orders on its behalf. Google takes care of the sales, marketing and management of the accounts.
Google is one of many technology vendors vying for government contracts.
A single deal can be sizable, such as the one Google made with the National Security Agency, which paid more than $2 million for four search appliances plus a support agreement, according to a contract obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
However, the amount is insignificant when measured against Google's overall revenue of $16.6 billion last year, virtually all of which came from online advertising.
On occasion, Google is the target of conspiracy theories from bloggers who say it is working with spy agencies more closely than simply selling search equipment.
The buzz got so loud two years ago that Matt Cutts, who leads Google's fight against spam Web sites, responded by ridiculing the idea in his personal blog.
Google's Bradshaw emphasized that the company sells virtually the same products to companies as it does to government agencies. Google can make minor tweaks to comply with government rules about equipment security, for example, while major customization is handled by others.
"There were some wild accusations," Bradshaw said. "But everything we do with the government is the same as what we do with our corporate customers."
E-mail Verne Kopytoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.