It is a story that has been generating a lot of buzz — I have been trying to nail it down for a few days — and I give a lot of credit to MarcAmbinder, the Altlantic magazine’s associate editor, who broke the story yesterday.
The intelligence community’s innovative uGov e-mail domain, one of its earliest efforts at cross-agency collaboration, will be shut down because of security concerns, government officials said.
The decision, announced internally last Friday to the hundreds of analysts who use the system, drew immediate protests from intelligence agency employees and led to anxiety that other experimental collaborative platforms, like the popular Intellipedia website, are also in the target sights of managers.
It follows reports that another popular analytic platform called “Bridge,” which allows analysts with security clearances to collaborate with people outside the government who have relevant expertise but no clearances, is being killed, and indications that funding for another transformational capability, theDoDIIS Trusted Workstation, which allows analysts to look at information at a variety of clearance levels — Secret, Top Secret, Law Enforcement Sensitive — is being curtailed.
uGov, rolled out in 2005, is an open source server designed to allow analysts and intelligence collectors from across the 16 different agencies to collaborate with ease and security. More prosaically, it processes unclassified e-mail for ODNI employees, contains an open-source contact and calendar management system, and allows employees to access less sensitive collaboration platforms from computers outside their offices.
UGov has been especially popular among the large tranche of analysts who joined the community after 9/11. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) runs the network.
I use the term “Intellipedia” to describe the suite of collaboration tools. That suite includes the Intellipedia wiki, which operates on the Media Wiki software platform, the same platform that runs the popular Wikipedia online encyclopedia. And the suite includes many of the tools that you probably use today — photo sharing, e-mail… on and on an on.
To be fair, I have not spoken to ODNI officials. They are saying that they will put me in touch with somebody, but… it has not happened yet. Of course, I hope to have somebody on Federal News Radio 1500 AM to talk about this.
What we hear is that uGov is being taken down because of concerns about the security of the system. Again, ODNI officials would not officially confirm.
But the question that is now being debated behind closed doors — and needs to be a more public discussion — is that balance between security and collaboration.
There are, after all, security concerns with all software. Every one. Many security experts point to Zimbra as one of the most security e-mail systems anywhere — and it has been patched to make it more secure.
So, to be honest, I’m not buying the security issue.
Security also becomes an easy issue for organizations to hide behind — reasons not to change the way organizations have done business. It is a half-step away from the worst phrase in the English language: ‘That’s not how we do business here.’ It is a way of avoiding justifying decisions and entering a debate.
The real issue is a ‘who moved my cheese.’ That fact is that the Intellipedia collaboration suite does change the way the intelligece community has done business. I am not an intelligece expert by any means, but in my reading of the 9/11 Commission final report — something I would highly recommend. It seems there are all sorts of opportunities to try new ways of doing business.
I would also read the assessment of A-Space, which is one part of the Intellipedia collaboration suite of tools. An independent report found that people were actually sharing information in new and different ways.
Back in February, Government Computer News’s Joab Jackson had a really excellent story that garnered a lot of attention — Intellipedia suffers midlife crisis. At the time, I scoffed at that idea. I argued that these collaboration tools are barely walking yet and that they are far from a midlife crisis. And I was partially correct — I do still think we are in the infancy of what will happen with collaboration tools. But I was too literal. Intellipedia was — and is — going through growing pains. It’s not quite mid-life — perhaps this baby is taking her first steps. But ODNI is making important decisions here that will have significant impact — and ramifications.
My sense is what is actually happening is a battle with the concepts — and that is the debate that should be going on. Do we really believe that all of us are smarter then each of us individually?
Yes — all of this will mean change. The job people are doing now won’t be the same job they were doing a decade ago — or even a year ago.
We need to learn more — and ODNI needs to talk about this in a public way. But based on the information we have right now, it seems there is a lot going on here.
But let’s have the real debate. Let’s not couch it under a security blanket.