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Monday, June 10, 2013

Big Data Intelligence Sleuthing, 1960s Style

America’s intelligence agencies have long prodded the frontiers of computing and data analysis as the most demanding of customers, willing to pay whatever it takes for advanced surveillance technology.

An article published in The Times on Sunday shows how the nation’s spy agencies work with the high-tech industry today.

In the old days, the quarry was not some Qaeda operative but Karla, a Soviet agent. Yet while the context may have been different, the institutional impulse was similar more than five decades ago when, in 1962, I.B.M. delivered the top-secret Stretch-Harvest computer to the National Security Agency.

It was the most advanced computer of its day, and a mammoth machine. Stretch-Harvest was made of dozens of refrigerator-sized cabinets, wired together, with the entire system weighing as much as 75,000 pounds, according to Dag Spicer, a senior curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Technically, the computer was indeed a “stretch” and its mission was to “harvest” intelligence from intercepted communications from spy listening posts around the world.

The computer experts were not allowed to see the output of Stretch-Harvest. The printer was draped in black cloth, accessible only to members of the spy agency.

One efficiency report from the 1960s stated that in one period of 3 hours 50 minutes, the computer scanned more than seven million messages of about 500 characters each, examining them for any of 7,000 different words or phrases of interest to the N.S.A.

Stretch-Harvest labored on behalf of the agency for 14 years before being retired in 1976, a computing workhorse of the cold war.

“For its time, it was very advanced,” Frances Allen, a retired I.B.M. researcher who worked on Stretch-Harvest, recalled.

Stretch-Harvest was custom-built for the N.S.A. with the communications-analysis features and peripherals â€" the “harvesting” capability â€" added on. And the additions were to the Stretch computer, the I.B.M. 7030. Mark Smotherman, a computer scientist at Clemson University, maintains a Web site dedicated to the Stretch computer and its technical achievements.