NSA's Expensive Computer Systems Fail, So They Go Shopping In Silicon Valley

from the shop-away dept

Remember all the stories about how screwed up the FBI’s hyped up new computer system was? The one that went way over budget and was eventually scrapped because it wasn’t actually useful for fighting terrorism? Yeah, well, it turns out they weren’t the only government agency to spend millions of dollars on a crappy, useless computer system. You can add the NSA to the list, as the Baltimore Sun is reporting that the secretive agency has two massive computer projects that have been nothing but trouble, holding back the agency’s efforts to fight terrorism (where have we heard this before…?). From the report, it seems to suggest that billions of dollars have been wasted on the combined systems and the end results are: “agency computers have trouble talking to each other and frequently crash, key bits of data are sometimes lost, and vital intelligence can be overlooked.” Meanwhile, rather than focusing on fixing it, the article suggests that people in the NSA are working hard to… make sure this info doesn’t get out to the press (too late for that, apparently). Perhaps all that explains why a group of folks from the NSA came out to Silicon Valley earlier this month to ask VCs to find them companies that make technology that actually works for all of their data mining efforts.

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Comments on “NSA's Expensive Computer Systems Fail, So They Go Shopping In Silicon Valley”

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Chris says:

Hmmm ...

“Computers are integral to everything NSA does, yet it is not uncommon for the agency’s unstable computer system to freeze for hours, unlike the previous system, which had a backup mechanism that enabled analysts to continue their work, said Matthew Aid, a former NSA analyst and congressional intelligence staff member.

When the agency’s communications lines become overloaded, the Groundbreaker system has been known to deliver garbled intelligence reports, Aid said. Some analysts and managers have said their productivity is half of what it used to be because the new system requires them to perform many more steps to accomplish what a few keystrokes used to, he said. They also report being locked out of their computers without warning.”

Let me guess, they switched from using Supercomputer and large UNIX systems to using Dell and Microsoft …

drdubious says:

Re: Hmmm ...

Sounds just like the “BETA” system my company paid 100’s meg$ to replace our old “outdated” system. Now it takes us 4 times as long to do what we did before and we generate 8 times as much paper in our “paperless” offices.
Don’t underestimate Corporate America’s ability to screw it up just as bad or worse than the gov.

Matt Sherwood says:


Most Interesting Story I have read yet on Tech Dirt!!!

A Story: 20-some years ago, when I was a senior in college, I took the NSA entrance exam…really, it was the best-designed intelligence/entrance test I have ever taken…..(due to radical leftist politics, and substantial substance abuse history, i couldn’t pursue NSA employment any further..)

Lately, I have been checking the NSA Website every so often…it seems it has eliminated this test, which i think would be a shame, (Unless the NSA has taken this test so private that it does not mention it on its website…)

Anyone know anyone about this?

Jimmy Bear Pearson (user link) says:

Unfortunate, but not uncommon...

My experience has been that many software/computer system projects (that many governmental agencies produce) are unfocused and ineffective. Many factors contribute to these ineffective projects:

1) Too many chiefs, not enough chieftains;
2) Management tends to micro-manage, even if only to be able to CYA;
3) The hiring and engineer selection process is generally done by a combination of non-technical types, and engineers who have been out to pasture for a very long time;
4) The wide shopping list of features often goes into serious feature-creep, is constantly a changing target, and is generally not a proper feature list.

I do not wish to sound overly negative. Many, many government-produced projects have gone very well (one does not hear about these in the news). However, it is healthy for the American public to know when their government does not get a quality product ? public failure is an effective (if quite harsh) means of keeping the powers that be concerned about effective systems.

Clown Smash says:

Re: Unfortunate, but not uncommon...

One thing to always remeber about our Gov is that the work, outside work, goes to the lowest bidder. You are right, not all projects go bad.
From your list.
1) Politics
2) The project is put on someone’s performance review
3) Politics, again
4) feature-creep, remember when Word was Word? What the heck is it now??

Peri says:

No Subject Given

Govt engineers are not as technically current as their civilian counterparts, because government service values political skills over technical. Many of the agencies have turned management of their most technical projects over to civilian project engineers. The PEs are private company employees, who oversee the work of the real system builders, acting as technical reps for the govt customers. This works for a while, but then, because the PEs are so close to their government customers, they get political also.
By the way, you can always tell the insiders from their use of “the”. It is correct to say “the CIA”, or “the NRO”, but no intelligence geek would say “the NSA”. Its just “NSA”, as in “I will be at NSA all afternoon”. You would not say “I pray to the God this project goes ok”, would you?

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