James Bond's browser

The CIA gets a onetime game designer to head its tech effort. Can top-secret data management compete with air-combat simulators?

Published September 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Central Intelligence Agency is launching a $28 million venture fund that will invest in new Silicon Valley technologies. The CIA is hoping to improve its own technological infrastructure and develop new "security technologies," among other aims. Naturally, the CIA, ever the modern corporation, chose a seasoned technology executive, Gilman Louie -- formerly of Hasbro's online division -- to head its effort. There's one great bit, however, that didn't make it into the Times scoop: Louie not only founded the games company Spectrum Holobyte, but was actually the programmer behind F-16 Falcon, one of the hot air-combat simulators of the 1980s.

For a lot of teenage boys, flight simulators like F-16 Falcon were the answer to "What do I do in the three hours I need to kill between school and dinnertime." They were also some of the more intricate pieces of programming around. (Louie says when it came out, in 1987, his flight simulator beat out Microsoft's then-new Windows to get a software industry award for technical achievement.)

If there's one thing boys like at least as much as rad fighter planes, it's James Bond-style spooks. And Louie's new CIA program even has a comic book name: In-Q-It, after "Q," James Bond's gadget guru. You might think of what Louie is doing, working for the CIA, as a natural evolution from the combat simulator days. Interestingly, you'd be wrong.

In-Q-It was formed to invest money in companies building technologies that will solve the CIA's key problems. The hope is that solving them will pay off commercially, too. As Louie thinks of it, when it comes to technology the CIA is just a bunch of regular guys who have regular problems, except it has very complicated systems and very pressing security needs.

So what are the CIA's key technology needs? Alas, if only they were as interesting as James Bond's exploding pens and floating Aston Martin.

Louie says that there are four key areas in which In-Q-It will invest: Internet tools, information security, software that navigates through tremendous amounts of data, and integrating old computer systems (of which the government has more than its share) with new programs.

He grabs another desktop example to explain the CIA's information problems. According to Louie, navigating through the agency's huge databases is a lot like navigating the Internet, the biggest information repository of all. And what the CIA really needs for that is a really good browser.

It almost makes you long for the good old days, when weapons (like the F-16 Falcon) and spycraft at least sounded fun. The end of the Cold War seems to have revealed one of the really big secrets of the CIA: War isn't just hell, it's also boring.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

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