by Mike Masnick

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.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Chris, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 5:40am

    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 ...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    MacUser3, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 5:48am

    Re: Hmmm ...

    Dead on... is this an "economy of scale"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Tim Thorpe, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 5:49am

    Re: Hmmm ...

    pretty dead on with that analysis. I know they use a hacked up version of Linux internally too. Tho we don't hear much from the dev's they don't complain too often about the linux clusters either.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Matt Sherwood, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 5:53am


    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 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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Devang, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 6:09am

    No Subject Given

    Every other media outlets is forgetting about the FBI screw up... The IEEE had a good article about the FBI 'system' a while ago.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Jimmy Bear Pearson, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 6:59am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    STJ, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 8:43am

    No Subject Given

    Maybe they should get the computers and software the Recording Industery uses, so they can go after dead people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    z, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 9:20am

    No Subject Given

    I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E. is never wrong!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Peri, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 10:02am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Bill, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 10:12am

    Must be J2EE

    Eagle Alliance seems to be useing Java heavily.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Clown Smash, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 11:26am

    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??

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    alex, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 12:17pm

    No Subject Given

    all i know is this: they sure as hell aren't using macs :-P

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    drdubious, Feb 27th, 2006 @ 4:29pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Michael Krigsman, May 1st, 2006 @ 7:16pm

    Blog entry about this

    Excellent post and article. I've responded over at the project failures blog:

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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