Google: Fit for intelligence work?

Some question whether search engine can detect complex patterns

Google, developer of the popular Web search engine, is joining forces with federal-sector vendors to extend the company's reach into the defense and intelligence markets. But some experts say Google's system for extracting and ranking data is unfit for classified work.

By making use of their partners' security clearances and government relationships, Google officials hope to place their enterprise products on top-secret government networks. Twelve information technology firms — including LMN Solutions and EagleForce Associates — have already undergone training and paid Google $10,000 in annual fees to collaborate.

The Google Enterprise Professional Program authorizes Google-certified vendors, developers and consultants to install the company's search appliance boxes at businesses and government agencies. Google recently began selling business tools that apply the search functions of to company Web sites, intranets and desktop PCs. The products include Google Search Appliance, the Google Mini and the Google Desktop Search for Enterprise.

Last spring, the free consumer version of Google Desktop drew fire from analysts for opening up the contents of PCs to passersby and thieves. But Google officials say they have added encryption to the enterprise version that renders files inaccessible when crooks attempt to re-create search indexes.

All three Google products allow systems administrators to restrict access to results and grant special permissions to individual employees.

Google officials say the new partner program is intended to develop more complex applications of the company's search technology.

"We don't know all the particular uses of our product," said Dave Girouard, general manager of Google Enterprise. "We want to really focus on our role as a technology provider. We would never be hugely successful as consultants."

For instance, EagleForce built a database that helped the Wichita, Kan., Police Department tag the serial killer known as BTK, for "bind, torture, kill." The system narrowed the list of potential suspects from millions of people to one, Dennis Rader.

EagleForce officials said Google's tools could enhance such a system and help EagleForce continue its work on anti-terrorism initiatives for the Defense Department.

"The world's biggest guy and the guys who organize content for [DOD] make a very good match," said Stanley Campbell, EagleForce's chief executive officer. "We think that they are going to be a natural fit, especially for the areas that involve themselves with large datasets and clearly defined data organization."

Other Google teammates with experience in intelligence work say Google's search technology has finally matured enough to meet the constraints of highly secure systems while permitting painless access to results.

"The perception is that if it's easy to get to, then it's not secure," said Matt McKnight, president of integrator LMN Solutions. "We'll layer on top the security."

LMN will run safety checks on Google queries after inserting the enterprise products into customized system architectures, McKnight said.

But some consultants say Google's ranking method does not offer anything special in the hunt for enemies.

George Kondrach, executive vice president of information management consulting firm Innodata Isogen, said Google will face challenges in extracting useful data for intelligence analysts, who are looking for "unusual patterns, new patterns, no patterns, changing patterns, intentionally obscured patterns, deep patterns, arcane patterns or convoluted patterns."

Kondrach has been helping the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency with search projects for about a year.

"For those things that Google does find, it will rank them based on popularity," he said. "When there are a lot of hits, that means that many relevant occurrences will be overlooked in favor of the highest-ranked hits. This diminishes the value of Google for the intelligence-use case of finding meaningful information patterns."

For more mundane tasks, such as finding human resources forms, Microsoft PowerPoint slides or spreadsheets, other search software works just as well as Google's, Kondrach said.

Other search gurus add that Google's expansive listings could actually hamper intelligence research.

"For a CIA analyst, a useful result would be something on the order of a half a dozen or so hits that organize information — for example, reports from classified sources within Iraq, something where I would not be wandering around [looking] for something that is relevant," said private consultant Patrick Durusau, who is chairman of the U.S. advisory group that helped develop an international standard for search navigation.

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