The investment arms of the CIA and Google are both backing a company that monitors the web in real time — and says it uses that information to predict the future.
The company is called Recorded Future, and it scours tens of thousands of websites, blogs and Twitter accounts to find the relationships between people, organizations, actions and incidents — both present and still-to-come. In a white paper, the company says its temporal analytics engine "goes beyond search" by "looking at the 'invisible links' between documents that talk about the same, or related, entities and events."
The idea is to figure out for each incident who was involved, where it happened and when it might go down. Recorded Future then plots that chatter, showing online "momentum" for any given event.
"The cool thing is, you can actually predict the curve, in many cases," says company CEO Christopher Ahlberg, a former Swedish Army Ranger with a PhD in computer science.
Which naturally makes the 16-person Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm attractive to Google Ventures, the search giant's investment division, and to In-Q-Tel, which handles similar duties for the CIA and the wider intelligence community.
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It's not the very first time Google has done business with America's spy agencies. Long before it reportedly enlisted the help of the National Security Agency to secure its networks, Google sold equipment to the secret signals-intelligence group. In-Q-Tel backed the mapping firm Keyhole, which was bought by Google in 2004 — and then became the backbone for Google Earth.
This appears to be the first time, however, that the intelligence community and Google have funded the same startup, at the same time. No one is accusing Google of directly collaborating with the CIA. But the investments are bound to be fodder for critics of Google, who already see the search giant as overly cozy with the U.S. government, and worry that the company is starting to forget its "don't be evil" mantra.
America's spy services have become increasingly interested in mining "open source intelligence" — information that's publicly available, but often hidden in the daily avalanche of TV shows, newspaper articles, blog posts, online videos and radio reports.
U.S. Spy Agencies Have Invested in a Number of Firms
"Secret information isn't always the brass ring in our profession," then CIA-director General Michael Hayden told a conference in 2008. "In fact, there's a real satisfaction in solving a problem or answering a tough question with information that someone was dumb enough to leave out in the open."
U.S. spy agencies, through In-Q-Tel, have invested in a number of firms to help them better find that information. Visible Technologies crawls over half a million web 2.0 sites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. Attensity applies the rules of grammar to the so-called "unstructured text" of the web to make it more easily digestible by government databases. Keyhole (now Google Earth) is a staple of the targeting cells in military-intelligence units.
Recorded Future strips from web pages the people, places and activities they mention. The company examines when and where these events happened ("spatial and temporal analysis") and the tone of the document ("sentiment analysis"). Then it applies some artificial-intelligence algorithms to tease out connections between the players. Recorded Future maintains an index with more than 100 million events, hosted on Amazon.com servers. The analysis, however, is on the living web.
"We're right there as it happens," Ahlberg told Danger Room as he clicked through a demonstration. "We can assemble actual real-time dossiers on people."
Recorded Future certainly has the potential to spot events and trends early. Take the case of Hezbollah's long-range missiles. On March 21, Israeli President Shimon Peres leveled the allegation that the terror group had Scud-like weapons. Scouring Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's past statements, Recorded Future found corroborating evidence from a month prior that appeared to back up Peres' accusations.
That's one of several hypothetical cases Recorded Future runs in its blog devoted to intelligence analysis. But it's safe to assume that the company already has at least one spy agency's attention. In-Q-Tel doesn't make investments in firms without an "end customer" ready to test out that company's products.
Common Investment Doesn't Mean Google Is in Bed With the Gov't
Both Google Ventures and In-Q-Tel made their investments in 2009, shortly after the company was founded. The exact amounts weren't disclosed, but were under $10 million each. Google's investment came to light earlier this year online. In-Q-Tel, which often announces its new holdings in press releases, quietly uploaded a brief mention of its investment a few weeks ago.
Both In-Q-Tel and Google Ventures have seats on Recorded Future's board. Ahlberg says those board members have been "very helpful," providing business and technology advice, as well as introducing him to potential customers. Both organizations, it's safe to say, will profit handsomely if Recorded Future is ever sold or taken public. Ahlberg's last company, the corporate intelligence firm Spotfire, was acquired in 2007 for $195 million in cash.
Google Ventures did not return requests to comment for this article. In-Q-Tel Chief of Staff Lisbeth Poulos e-mailed a one-line statement: "We are pleased that Recorded Future is now part of IQT's portfolio of innovative startup companies who support the mission of the U.S. Intelligence Community."
Just because Google and In-Q-Tel have both invested in Recorded Future doesn't mean Google is suddenly in bed with the government. Of course, to Google's critics — including conservative legal groups, and Republican congressmen — the Obama Administration and the Mountain View, California, company slipped between the sheets a long time ago.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt hosted a town hall at company headquarters in the early days of Obama's presidential campaign. Senior White House officials like economic chief Larry Summers give speeches at the New America Foundation, the left-of-center think tank chaired by Schmidt. Former Google public policy chief Andrew McLaughlin is now the White House's deputy CTO, and was publicly (if mildly) reprimanded by the administration for continuing to hash out issues with his former colleagues.
In some corners, the scrutiny of the company's political ties have dovetailed with concerns about how Google collects and uses its enormous storehouse of search data, e-mail, maps and online documents. Google, as we all know, keeps a titanic amount of information about every aspect of our online lives. Customers largely have trusted the company so far, because of the quality of their products, and because of Google's pledges not to misuse the information still ring true to many.
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But unease has been growing. Thirty seven state Attorneys General are demanding answers from the company after Google hoovered up 600 gigabytes of data from open Wi-Fi networks as it snapped pictures for its Street View project. (The company swears the incident was an accident.)
"Assurances from the likes of Google that the company can be trusted to respect consumers' privacy because its corporate motto is 'don't be evil' have been shown by recent events such as the 'Wi-Spy' debacle to be unwarranted," long-time corporate gadfly John M. Simpson told a Congressional hearing in a prepared statement. Any business dealings with the CIA's investment arm are unlikely to make critics like him more comfortable.
But Steven Aftergood, a critical observer of the intelligence community from his perch at the Federation of American Scientists, isn't worried about the Recorded Future deal. Yet.
"To me, whether this is troublesome or not depends on the degree of transparency involved. If everything is aboveboard — from contracts to deliverables — I don't see a problem with it," he told Danger Room by e-mail. "But if there are blank spots in the record, then they will be filled with public skepticism or worse, both here and abroad, and not without reason."