Gary Jackson, CGI Federal

Gary Jackson

DIrector

Mission readiness refers to an organization’s ability to understand, plan, program and fulfill core mission responsibilities, especially in the face of emerging threats and other major changes in circumstance.

It means you should be able to quickly bring together all of the digital intelligence artifacts you need to solve a problem, including data, algorithms, data dictionaries, data models, schemas and/or visualization templates.

Lack of real-time access to these artifacts compromises mission readiness, but it’s only a symptom of a bigger problem.

How do agencies share data safely and securely within the realm of their classification?  How does each agency interpret insights from the same point of context?

This requires more than rows and columns—it requires data awareness and intelligence.  Data systems today must understand the meaning of the information, have the ability to create a data dictionary and analyze samples of the data to apply to the right algorithms. Meanwhile, they need a machine-learning process to cleanse the data, creating a higher fidelity in the information being shared or gathered.

I use marbles, my grandfather’s favorite game when he was a kid, as an analogy for data sharing. He would talk for hours about his favorite marbles and how he would not stop playing until he won back all his favorite marbles that he had lost—plus a few more.

A quick refresher to those who have never played marbles:

  • The goal is to knock out all the marbles you can, while leaving the shooter marble (your favorite) inside the circle.
  • The bigger the circle, the harder the game.
  • The player must take their shooter marble and place their knuckles in contact with the floor before shooting. This is called “knuckling down.”
  • A secret to winning at marbles: Look at your target when shooting, not the shooter marble itself.

What does marbles have to do with data sharing between governmental agencies?

A lot, as it turns out.

Consider these principles of inter-agency data sharing:

  • Leaving the “shooter marble” (main data asset) in the circle as data at rest—with no need for anyone to download, modify or change it—allows one to chase after mission objectives without opening up intellectual property.
  • The circle of data sharing based on a mission or mandate can be massive—and the bigger it is, the harder it is to control the artifacts.
  • Posturing the data (“knuckling down”) is usually focused on damage control or to prevent one agency from looking incompetent compared to another. Using all digital intelligence artifacts in a collaborative way eliminates such comparisons.
  • Usually, agencies focus on the data or artifacts they currently have, not the artifacts in the circle. If they shift their attention to the objective of combining artifacts and sharing algorithms to speed up the mission, the process becomes quicker and more efficient.

Agencies usually treat all of their digital intelligence assets as their most prized marbles. They grudgingly give up these assets when they must, but fail to share the digital intelligence artifacts that bring the most value.

Agencies that want to improve their data-sharing game have a challenge ahead. Going from zero to mission-ready can take nine to 12 months using the usual government procedures.

Mission ready in 9 months (or more)

Even when agencies are willing, it usually takes multiple months to get a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in place to officially share digital intelligence assets. Once the agencies do begin sharing data, they have to take it out of its place of rest and make it available for download and upload. Data in motion is subject to security vulnerabilities that can allow someone to change, or even forge, data as it travels.

If agencies have scraped data from public sources, hoping to find some insights while waiting for the agreement to be finalized, they then have to validate that data against the official version, checking for discrepancies.

Mission-ready at the speed of the mission

There is an alternative that speeds mission readiness: Using distributed ledger technology (DLT). This initially allows for digital smart contracts—compressing the usually lengthy MOU process. Later, decentralized storing of digital intelligence assets that allows for cryptographically secure updates without fear of altered data.

diagram of distributed ledger technology in data sharing
How distributed ledger technology can aid secure data sharing. (Graphic by Gary Jackson)

The digital smart contract serves as the MOU, allowing for immediate digital intelligence asset sharing between agencies and analysts across multiple classification levels. Agencies can employ role-based access control (RBAC), attribute-based access control (ABAC) using CGI Federal’s patented technology, and/or a defined time period to limit access appropriately.

This method provides full auditing on all digital assets that agencies exchange. These audits cannot be modified, as this meta-information is stored on multiple validator nodes. Simply stated, to alter the truth would require a hacker to find and modify the audit details on a number of validator nodes to get consensus. The number that constitutes consensus is always in flux.

With this access control—which can also involve physical identification verification, such as a Common Access Card (CAC)—analysts and agencies can see the data dictionaries, data schemas and write-ups for the logic of the algorithms built on the shared data, but they cannot push or pull the data out of its place of rest. Instead, data is black-boxed and algorithms are tokenized—when executed together, this method will not reveal the IP. The system returns results based on the inquirer’s clearance level. Agencies can use these results to create new data sources to be shared within the same agency or with other agencies with a smart contract MOU.

We call data combined with algorithms “data cookbooks.” These cookbooks can include pre-curated data, result data, data dictionaries, data models, plus code and algorithms that work with the data. Usually, these cookbooks focus on a mission or a mandate.

Now the game is not just about collecting all the marbles. Agencies are creating new data artifacts, advancing their missions steadily. However big the circle of information to be shared gets, all members get a chance to put in their own “shooter marbles” to combine with other assets.

An agency that plans with collaborative digital intelligence assets – securely shared and aggregated with other ideas—is an agency that is truly mission-ready.

To talk more about distributed ledger technology and how it could help your organization, just contact me.  

About this author

Gary Jackson, CGI Federal

Gary Jackson

DIrector

Gary Jackson leads secure data fabric development within the Emerging Technology Practice for CGI Federal.