Challenges ranging from teaching people new ways of learning languages to providing security for homemade computer chips head the priority list for researchers at the National Security Agency.
The exponential expansion of technology capabilities is perhaps matched by the growth of potential conflict areas, and
both are increasing the issues faced by the agency’s research
Traditional skills such as translating communications intercepts now must take into account that any one of thousands
of languages spoken on Earth could be vital if a new trouble
spot flares up. The ubiquity of networked devices, especially
in the context of the emerging Internet of Things, provides
its own unique cybersecurity challenges. And, the near future
may see individuals making chips at home for their own customized communications devices, which also would need to
These are some of the tasks facing Dr. Deborah A. Frincke,
director of research at the National Security Agency/Central
Security Service (NSA/CSS). Frincke points out that hers is
the only group within the intelligence community that has
a large body of long-, medium- and short-term research. In
addition to conducting contract research with academia and
industry, it also has a sizeable investment in long-term staff.
“We have a very large body of professional researchers who
have spent their entire careers here and also those we hire
more later [in their] careers … and that is unique,” she offers.
“We don’t see that elsewhere—that investment in a long-term
body of internal researchers.”
This institutional knowledge provides a significant advan-
tage, she continues. With the research directorate inside the
agency, it “sits right at the table’ with the senior leaders of the
agency. Leadership hears about technological advances at the
same time it is learning about worldwide issues, she points
out, which enables real-time coordination of research with
Other research agencies such as the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Intelligence
Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) cycle out
researchers to ensure a steady flow of fresh blood. Not only
does Frincke’s directorate have both fresh blood and long-
term intellectual capital, its work with IARPA and DARPA is
complementary, she allows.
“IARPA is a great example of a partnership where I can
leverage their ability of really rapid rotation and their ability
to be out and about in the community in a much broader
way,” Frincke states. “There will be projects we do with
IARPA, for example, where we’ll jointly decide that there’s a
particular research area that’s best conducted on the outside
but informed by internal knowledge.”
For example, the NSA’s long-term agenda in a field such
as analysis might help drive IARPA decisions about where to
invest and where to dedicate its unique resources, she con-
tinues. Both agencies then benefit from the results.
At the top of the NSA/CSS critical research list is language
analytics. Frincke points out that the world today is rife with
potential hot spots, and about 7,000 languages are spoken
around the globe. A hot spot might arise amid any one of
But this effort involves more than just having a lot of
people who speak foreign languages, which Frincke emphasizes the NSA already does as well as any organization. The
agency teaches its team of linguists about 100 languages
as part of its education and training, but that means more
than 6,000 other languages remain out of the realm of the
With the NSA gathering information in an increasing
number of languages, the agency is looking to further its
expertise in human language translation. This research aims
at helping a machine better assist the understanding of a
conversation, she allows, and it departs from conventional
language understanding programs.
“This is different from the [Apple] Siri approach where
you perhaps have a language translation that’s wanting to be
understood,” she explains. “It’s more like the cocktail party
issue where you walk into a room and there’s all kinds of
languages taught. How do you understand the particular
one you need?
“That’s a much harder problem than is faced by the outside, where it’s generally one language at a time with a willing listener and a willing speaker,” she elaborates.
This effort relates to a second research priority—how to
Research Explores Technological,
NSA labs probe chip-based devices and
enhance cognitive learning to secure the nation.
BY ROBERT K. ACKERMAN
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT