17 May 2018

CIA to Use Amazon Cloud to Run Big Data Intelligence Experiments

Robert Levinson ,Chris Cornillie

The Central Intelligence Agency is looking to team up with industry experts to run a series of open-source intelligence projects using its Amazon cloud. The agency released a revised acquisition schedule on May 7 for a project known as Mesa Verde that will test the frontiers of big data and open-source intelligence. The project calls for using the CIA’s C2S cloud, built by Amazon Web Services LLC, to pore through thousands of terabytes of data, including data publicly available on the Web, and apply tools such as natural language processing, sentiment analysis, and data visualization to draw conclusions others might have missed.

For the three years before October 2017, the CIA’s Directorate of Digital Innovation Digital Futures led a series of prototype activities to develop analytics applications for Mesa Verde, capable of techniques ranging from simple search through statistical analysis of massive amounts of data using advanced analytic algorithms, according to documents released by the agency.

In October 2017 the CIA released a market survey seeking potential vendors for the Mesa Verde project. The new acquisition schedule posted on the Acquisition Research Center website indicates that the CIA expects to:
Release a draft RFP in Q4 FY 2018;
Release a final RFP in Q1 FY 2019;
Set a Q2 2019 deadline for proposals; and
Make an award in Q3 2019.

The winning vendor also will be responsible for managing Mesa Verde research on a day-to-day basis. It will involve creating and maintaining a DevOps environment in the CIA’s unclassified commercial cloud that mirrors its classified AWS infrastructure. The RFI doesn’t specify an award value. The CIA anticipates a 12-month period of performance with four additional one-year options.

For now, Mesa Verde will consist of short experiments using open-source data and unclassified cloud computing resources. But according to the document, the spy agency hopes Mesa Verde will help to define the analytic workflow of the future and inform its strategy for years to come.

The Mesa Verde project is one more indication of the growing importance of open-source information and analysis to the intelligence community. Bloomberg Government recently highlighted another CIA open-source intelligence opportunity as well as a similar opportunity for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Amazon’s National Security Cloud

Mesa Verde may be an indication of AWS’s increasing penetration in the government national security market. In 2013 the CIA awarded Amazon a 10-year, $600 million contract for C2S, which is accessible to all 17 agencies making up the U.S. intelligence community. Much of AWS’s success stems from its aggressive push to rack up security certifications from federal agencies. As of May 2018, it remains the only cloud service provider approved to store information marked “Secret.”

In December 2017, AWS was issued a sole-source award by U.S. Transportation Command, as part of the Pentagon’s “pathfinder” program for cloud migration.

Based on its work with the CIA and others, AWS is widely considered to have the inside track on the Pentagon’s hotly contested Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, commercial cloud contract, which could be awarded as soon as September 2018.

For federal contractors, Mesa Verde could represent an opportunity to gain past-performance experience analyzing data using AWS platforms. Companies who participate in experiments will be assigned tasks based on complexity levels including small (1-3 months), medium (3-5 months), and large (5-7 months).

More information, including a copy of the survey and information on other opportunities in the intelligence community can be found on the Acquisition Research Center website.

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