Relax, CIA is not snooping into Aadhaar via MongoDB

Once again Aadhaar finds itself mired in shady discussions of privacy and security - and this time the CIA is involved.

The Economic Times reports that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has contracted MongoDB - an American open source cross-platform document oriented database system startup, in an unspecified database management capacity.

The otherwise innocuous business deal has suddenly reached espionage status since MongoDB is partially funded by the not-for-profit venture capital firm of the CIA called In-Q-Tel (IQT).

The New York based company set up in 2007 known for its expertise with large database analytics and management, has 320 employees, 600 customers, market valuation of USD $1.2 billion and has just raised USD $150 million in its latest round of venture finding - of which the CIA's In-Q-Tel subsidiary has contributed an unspecified sum.

Reasons To Be Concerned?

The concern over this deal is clearly based on the clandestine nature of the CIA and the valid concerns over security and privacy when dealing with the personal data of Indian citizens. It's a genuine fear that in a post-Snowden world, the sanctity of international agreements on sovereignty and digital privacy not be taken for granted and scrutinized to ensure national autonomy.

Image: ibnlive

Image: ibnlive

However, so far, none of the parties involved - IQT or MongoDB or the UIDAI have made a statement regarding this connection. And even though no specific information has been disclosed regarding the nature of the agreement between MongoDB and UIDAI or the nature of influence the CIO or IQT would have over MongoDB operations, it hasn't stopped speculation to fill the void.

Investigating the nature of this CIA entity presents us with an interesting start.

IQT was established in September 1999 to "identity, adapt, and deliver innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency and broader U.S. Intelligence Community." Since then it has invested in more than 175 companies and now publicly lists 90 actively engaged companies, of which MongoDB is one.

In fact, the investment in MongoDB was publicly announced on 17 September 2013 and highlights the confidence IQT had in MongoDB's technological offerings.

"The ability to store and query both unstructured and structured data with performance at scale makes MongoDB an important addition to our strategic investment portfolio," said Robert Ames, Vice President of Information and Communication Technologies at IQT in the release. "MongoDB is built to leverage big data and holds great promise for the development of new storage and processing capabilities."

It is a fair assumption that when UIDAI was looking for a solution to managing the information of over a billion people it went for the best and discovered this press release and knew that MongoDB had CIA money backing it.

It is also fair to assume that in its talks two weeks ago with Max Schireson, the chief executive of MongoDB, the UIDAI expressed its concerns and sought clarifications. Of course, we are not privy to the internal dealings of governments and private companies, so the details still seem murky.

Who Are IQT Anyway?

Another manner to consider this concern is to look at the history of how the IQT has conducted business in the technology realm since its creation.

In its early history prior to 1999, IQT existed as a division of CIA Directorate of Science and Technology and was concerned with bringing the technology quotient of the agency at par and ahead of the world. However, as technological innovation moved outside of universities and government think tanks in to the private sector, it made sense for the CIA to also become involved, but it could no longer do so in secret.

"We decided to use our limited dollars to leverage technology developed elsewhere. In 1999 we chartered...In-Q-Tel...While we pay the bills, In-Q-Tel is independent of CIA," said George Tenet, former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) for the CIA in his book At the Centre of the Storm.

"CIA identifies pressing problems, and In-Q-Tel provides the technology to address them. The In-Q-Tel alliance has put the Agency back at the leading edge of technology," it noted.

Since then IQT has invested in companies that have gone on to become mainstream, such as facial recognitions softwares used in Las Vegas casinos, big data webcrawlers that companies like Amazon use to make readership recommendations and many others across the board investments involved in technology areas like communications, cyber security, data analytics, videos and imaging and much more.

The most well known of which is Google Earth - developed by a company called Keyhole - partially owned by IQT and then acquired by Google.

A Failure of Common Sense?

Just like most venture capital firms, IQT also invests and divests its interests in technology enterprises while adapting and adopting the technologies that it funds. IQT and the CIA between them possess sizable budgets, expertise and vision to know how different technologies can be used for national defense purposes.

In the scheme of these investments, MongoDB is a small fish - an open source solution that can be adapted and scaled for different databases, it is independently used and commercially licensed which significantly diminishes potential for back doors. Its potential for clandestine operations is nearly non-existent unless Indian agencies take software that is handed to them without so much as an anti-virus check by its own clandestine organisations like the National Technical Research Organisation (part of RAW).

So the idea that the CIA is covertly back dooring its way in to the UIDAI via MongoDB seems a bit premature and frankly, absurd.

And if we expect the CIA to have a tap on the personal information of Indian citizens then we might as well fear Samsung. If not for reasons that its devices simply hold more personal information of Indian users due to its market penetration, then for it's investment in Cloudant - a cloud based mobile provider that is also partially funded by In-Q-Tel and soon to be part of the mainstream Samsung cloud network.

There are far more serious technologies foreign intelligence agencies have made that should give us cause for concern like - the TOR network, created by the US Navy and used by Bitcoin fans world over or miniature flying drones being developed by the US Air Force or the series of interconnected computer network made by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, United States Department of Defense - commonly known as "the internet".


Published Date: Dec 05, 2013 10:46 am | Updated Date: Dec 21, 2014 02:09 am



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