At the center of the battle is Palantir, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that has built software programs that look for hidden connections in data. Palantir, which also received financial backing from In-Q-Tel, has quickly moved into a marketplace once dominated by traditional defense companies.
While the U.S. Army has provided Palantir software to a limited number of analysts in the field to help track improvised explosive device (IED) networks, it has favored sticking with its homegrown system, the DCGS-A. Supporters of the Silicon Valley-based Palantir have argued its software offers superior capabilities.
Jonathan Percy, vice president for homeland security and cyber at Overwatch, an operating unit of Textron Systems, calls claims of Palantir's capabilities “nonsense,” arguing that Palantir can only do “5%” of the total mission performed by DCGS-A. Overwatch, which builds the data analysis tools for DCGS-A, has been ramping up for its own battle with Palantir, including a recent move into homeland security and law enforcement markets.
“What they're trying to do is set themselves up,” says Percy of Palantir. “They're trying to force the Army to buy Palantir and just get rid of the investment.”
But Palantir has also found allies in Congress; Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has accused the Army of altering a test report that gave a positive review of Palantir's software compared with DCGS-A. Congress over the summer launched an investigation into the Army's handling of Palantir.
These sorts of data-mining tools are moving well beyond the current war in Afghanistan and are of interest in areas like Africa, where the U.S. military is tracking terrorist and insurgent networks. There, too, social media is a central focus, particularly in areas where traditional sources of intelligence, such as airborne sensors, may be in short supply or prohibited.
“Our sensors are a scarce resource,” says Tony Frazier, a senior vice president at GeoEye, a commercial satellite company, which also has an analytics unit. “If you want to take eyes off of Afghanistan, Iran or wherever the key hot spot is, then you need to be able to tap into a broader source of content.”
Frazier says GeoEye already is working on an Africa-focused project that is culling social media data to help get information that might otherwise only be collected through traditional signals intelligence. He declined to offer further details.
Of course, such analytic work is drawing on far more than social media: Agencies, whether military or law enforcement, can use their own proprietary databases, news articles, or even data from classified sources. While much of GeoEye's analytics work for Special Operations Forces and the intelligence community is classified, the company does openly discuss some aspects of its simulations, such as looking abroad at production sites for IEDs, or in the U.S. for methamphetamine labs.
The company also recently released a geospatial analysis of Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based wing of Al Qaeda. Using the company's Signature Analyst program, GeoEye says it was able to identify areas not previously recognized as high-threat where Al Shabaab might emerge.