3 Key Obstacles of Military Data Ops and What They Indicate

Reporting and Auditing in Databricks Using Immuta

There are many lessons that I learned throughout my civilian and military careers, but one that continues to hold true is that obstacles to accessing the data national and strategic analysts need are not caused by a lack of reporting in the field. Rather, it is the technical burdens, lack of a common data environment, and network disparities among our partner nations supporting a combined joint operation that create obstacles to efficient data access and analytics. This is a particularly glaring issue in the public sector.

I saw the impact of these challenges firsthand while serving as the Counterintelligence (CI) Special Agent in charge of the Insider Threat Cell and Document and Media Exploitation (DOMEX) Chief for the CI Operational Management Team (OMT) of Regional Command – East Afghanistan from May 2014 to February 2015. Serving in the OMT requires a complex mix of analysis, collection, networking, and management of all CI activities within the eastern region of Afghanistan.

The OMT balances the art of collecting and disseminating data for the purpose of receiving refined data to continue operations. We were uniquely equipped with two Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A) Multifunctional Workstations for sensor tasking; Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED); and a Deployable Harmony DOMEX Suite –Collection Toolkit to feed the Theater Exploitation Database. With these resources, we collected extraordinary amounts of raw data through traditional Human Intelligence (HUMINT) means, investigations, interrogations, and DOMEX/cell-phone exploitation (CELLEX) operations. Ultimately, it was primarily up to the OMT to feed the DCGS-A enterprise.

Key Obstacles to Military Data Ops

As a mid-tier tactical asset, feeding national assets is critical for the continuous intelligence process that supports the Intelligence Warfighting Function. However, the network, policy, and digital protocols of 2014-15, in hindsight, really hindered operations. Despite receiving direct support from the Intelligence Community (IC) inter-agencies, the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), and other key IC contributors, there is no doubt that having access to key pieces of information from these national assets could have changed the outcomes and decisions we made within our sphere of influence. We simply did not have the means to feed the IC fast enough, and could not access the data analysis provided by the IC from the Secure Internet Protocol Router (SIPR). Why? It boils down to three primary reasons:

1. Disparate Data Networks Made the Right Data Hard to Find

For our analyst, the issue was not having enough data –  often, it was too much of the wrong data. To complicate matters further, data lived on different networks (e.g. NIPR, SIPR, JWICS, NSAnet, BICES, and CENTRIXS, to name a few). As a result,the data was often duplicated and analysts spent much of their time gathering information from disparate data sources, rather than refining the right and relevant data.

2. Lack of a Common Data Network Led to Stale Data

Adding to the complexity, there was no common data environment. As the tactical element, we were the bottom feeders that contributed to the mess. We wrote daily drafts of Intelligence Information Reports that were distributed via email to multiple email exchanges – which, at the time, was the fastest mechanism to broadcast information. We relied on the Joint Staff Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence leadership staff (J2X), who did not publish Intelligence Information Reports through DCGS-A, to further disseminate our reports. J2X published directly to national intelligence programs of record, such as the HUMINT Online Tasking and Reporting database, which in turn did not immediately feed into the Army’s Message Processing System. Therefore, in some cases we had analysts at the Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC) distributing and analyzing data that was already a week old.

3. Incongruous Access Rights Delayed Speed to Data Access and Insights

In contrast, analysts at the JIOC had access to NSAnet, JWICS, BICES, and CENTRIXS, and unwittingly had more information at higher classifications. Yet, it was often assumed that relevant information was distributed to echelons below. As a result, data was a cat and mouse game, requiring us to travel (physically) to the JIOC to access a JWICS terminal in order to read emails, search national intelligence repositories, or just wait for the J2X to be our brokers of information – and keep in mind, we were not the only OMT under the J2X’s purview. It’s not hard to understand why our ability to conduct PED was restricted by our own network limitations, policies, and disparate data sources between the tactical and national level.

Often, SneakerNet and networking among other intelligence professionals was our primary way of conducting business to meet mission objectives.,It’s fair to say there were many missed opportunities and information that could have supported or even changed operations, had the data flowed evenly between tactical to national, and national to tactical. This retrospective knowledge highlights the dire need for a unified network where data can sit anywhere, yet be protected enough to fuse the gap between the data that flows from our classified and foreign partner networks.

Optimizing the Future of Secure, Efficient Public Sector Data Use

While we cannot change the past, we can advocate for existing and emerging capabilities that ensure the right data reaches the right data consumer at the right time and for the right reasons.

Platforms like Immuta can serve as the central point for data access management, allowing users to discover, secure, and monitor data while ensuring that policies can be rapidly created, adapted, and scaled. With Immuta as the tactical data owner, you can instantly provide access to relevant users from tactical to strategic endpoints to help achieve mission objectives.

We must take advantage of these fast and dynamic capabilities to ensure data is seamlessly available through integrations with existing enterprise Identity, Credential, and Access Management (ICAM) tools. This in turn will prevent Soldiers from being deprived of data while waiting weeks for account access, which will increase security and sound on-the-ground decision making.

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