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How IARPA Works

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IARPA Initiatives

The resounding mantra of IARPA is "high-risk/high-payoff." As mentioned earlier, the research it sponsors through its three program offices aims for pie-in-the-sky, never-been-done-before types of results. But what does that translate to in the spy world? In what areas is the newest intelligence organization in the United States focusing its resources?

First, we know that IARPA's activities are broken down into three program offices: smart collection, incisive analysis and safe and secure operations. When potential project managers approach IARPA with ideas, their proposal must first answer the five "Heilmeier questions." These are named for George Heilmeier, former DARPA director, and they encompass the essential points researchers should be able to address before starting a project:

  1. What are you trying to do?
  2. How does this get done at present? Who does it? What are the limitations of the present approaches?
  3. What is new about your approach? Why do you think you can be successful at this time?
  4. If you succeed, what difference will it make?
  5. How long will it take? How much will it cost? What are your mid-term and final exams for testing the results?

[source: IARPA]

After successfully answering those questions and passing other employment requirements, such as gaining clearance to obtain Top Secret credentials, project managers are brought on board. For an idea of what they might be doing, let's explore the three program offices.

Smart collection means pretty much what it says. A large part of spy work is obtaining information about specific targets, such as people, companies or organizations. To streamline this process, IARPA wants to find new ways to know where to look for the information in the first place [source: Adee]. The "smart" in smart collection also refers to the quality of the information they get their hands on [source: IARPA]. Computer software that allows them to search networks 20 times faster won't do much good if it's pulling up invalid data.

Today, there is no lack of information floating around, particularly on the Web. Put the term "spy" into Google, for example, and it spits back 132 million matches. Here's where incisive analysis comes in. A major thrust of this department is on cutting the time it takes to go through those reams of data [source: Porter]. For example, consider information from foreign enemies in a language you don't know. IARPA's new "English Now" software has solved that problem by providing fast and accurate translations with key words highlighted [source: Shrader].

One interesting aspect of this program office is the emphasis on behavioral and cultural background of targets [source: Butler]. Because globalization has reduced many spy operations to the micro level, exploring individuals' cultural patterns and nuances is important.

If IARPA wants to put the surprise back in spy work, people can't know what agencies are up to. Think about the widespread problems of identity theft from hackers stealing personal records on computers, and you have an idea of how big a job this is. Because technology has leveled the playing field in terms of systems and information, projects within safe and secure operations will seek to keep U.S. networks on lockdown from intruders. That way, while the U.S. intelligence community investigates targets, those same targets aren't looking right back.

What unclassified projects and technologies are IARPA sponsoring right now, and will the effects of the research trickle down to the civilian level? Find out on the next page.