DOD's Work: Automated data can help beat ISIS

Robert O. Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work

Machine learning -- with its automated response to new threat data -- can help lead to the defeat of the Islamic State, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said.

"We are absolutely certain that the use of deep-learning machines is going to allow us to have a better understanding of ISIS as a network, and a better understanding of how we can target it precisely and lead to its defeat," Work said March 30 at an event hosted by The Washington Post.

Work said he recently met with a firm in Silicon Valley that can crunch vast amounts of social media data to deliver insights.

The firm used its analytics capability to recount in real time how a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down, according to Work. An official investigation concluded that a Russian Buk missile downed the airplane over Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing 298 people.

Work's spokesperson, Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson, told FCW the company he referred to is Orbital Insight, a geospatial data firm. The deputy Defense secretary also met with Planet Labs Inc., a satellite firm founded by ex-NASA scientists, Hillson said.

Work has been a driving force behind the "third offset" strategy to address what U.S. officials have described as the Pentagon’s eroding technological edge over adversaries. Automation figures into all of the major pillars of that strategy, he has said.  

The Pentagon's push for technical advantage in cyberspace and other domains comes as it looks for new ways to target ISIS operatives.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his top general last month detailed how the relatively nascent U.S. Cyber Command is conducting an all-out digital assault on ISIS. That campaign has included hitting the terror group's social media accounts and could extend to efforts to disrupt its online financial transactions, the Associated Press reported.

"It has become easier for big data scientists to aggregate data from multiple sources quickly into a common repository, deriving insight at speed and scale," Bob Stasio, a former cyberspace specialist at the National Security Agency official, told FCW.

"This concept has become increasingly important as it applies to ISIS, as they operate in a global network across hundreds of digital platforms in many languages," added Stasio, now a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's R&D arm, has ramped up its spending on big data projects over the last few years. According to one analysis, DARPA's big data investments grew from around $97 million in fiscal 2014 to over $164 million in fiscal 2016.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.


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