Using data science and classified intel to seize the future

Usually, Israel’s intelligence community and government ministries all operated in solitary “silos,” division chief Victor Israel told the Post during the recent visit.

Intelligence ministry staff demonstes to The Jerusalem Post their 3d data science graphs that they produce. (photo credit: INTELLIGENCE MINISTRY)
Intelligence ministry staff demonstes to The Jerusalem Post their 3d data science graphs that they produce.
(photo credit: INTELLIGENCE MINISTRY)
The Jerusalem Post recently became the first media outlet to visit the Intelligence Ministry’s new cutting-edge “Horizon Scanning Lab” in Tel Aviv, which is using data science and classified intelligence in new ways to seize the future.
Made up of around a dozen individuals with academic and data-science backgrounds in different fields to match the projects that the group is working on, the unit is already changing the way intelligence is used and how parts of the government understand global developments.
Usually, Israel’s intelligence community and government ministries all operated in solitary “silos,” division chief Victor Israel told the Post during the recent visit.
The IDF, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Mossad focused on collecting global and regional intelligence for targeting enemies and other tactical operations, he said.
Government ministries frequently absorbed information only with the limited horizon of using it to impact the narrow areas they are responsible for locally and regionally.
But in an increasingly global world, where the coronavirus and other trends from distant regions rapidly shape the picture Israel must confront, Israel said no one was using intelligence to understand the big picture.
Everyone was analyzing security aspects of Syria’s civil war for years, but then they only very belatedly noticed “the other implications: that it caused one million refugees to go to Lebanon, Jordan... Europe,” the Intelligence Ministry division chief told the Post. “You started to see more anti-refugee sentiment in Europe, and this also impacts antisemitism.” His division will try to spot these complex trends faster, he said.
The closest any organization might have come to this might have been the Foreign Ministry.
But the Foreign Ministry is known for its strength in collecting information through local dialogue and less for how to use data science to reimagine and rescore different priorities and potential allies and adversaries.
For example, most of Israel’s perspective about Chinese foreign investments in Israel or elsewhere has been focused on specific projects with no bigger picture or limited to either a pro- or anti-Chinese investment big picture with little nuance.
VICTOR ISRAEL’S Intelligence Ministry unit uses data science to discover and answer questions like: “Why and when does China choose to make a foreign investment? What investments do they like, and what do they not like? We in Israel are tiny, but maybe we can fit their specific capabilities” in a specific area, which incidentally or not incidentally may “make the US mad.” What is the best way to then unravel these issues?
Some of the best ways to discover and answer these questions lies in combining classified intelligence and open-source, big-data mining. But they have been ignored until now.
So he might use a new kind of data-science-based scoring for evaluating an issue that could seem as alien to some intelligence or ministry officials as the idea of Moneyball – a way to evaluate baseball players’ utility with mathematical evaluations of their statistics – was to many baseball officials before it revolutionized much of the game.
“You can go to the intelligence agencies” with these questions, and “it is not a top priority for them,” Israel said. “Why would I ask, as an IDF intelligence analyst, who is the client? They will say they don’t care, and the Defense Ministry does not care.”
The Intelligence Ministry official discussed how he reviews highly classified intelligence from the Mossad, the Shin Bet and IDF intelligence.
“Let’s say, I understand they discovered a new kind of weapon or fighting, like a new kind of drone,” he said.
His ministry team then thinks about what a variety of countries might do with this technology in the future, both regionally and globally, and how this technology might also impact the civilian sector.
Because of this, Israel said he regularly pushes “to convert classified information into being declassified. Maybe 90% of the information can be declassified and will be relevant to other ministries. I push hard to declassify information” for this purpose.
Likewise, if there is some kind of competition between Europe and Russia, the Energy Ministry might not notice its implications for Israel, as it might be narrowly zoned in on immediate Israeli energy needs and the Middle East.
Interestingly, the Horizon division’s new combined intelligence and data-science methods can also achieve new understandings about which African nations to pursue with long-term economic alliances to try to flip them into supporters of Israel at the UN.
Some of these big-picture, data-mining conclusions might turn out to be different than conventional wisdom reached by dialogue with local country experts.
At the Intelligence Ministry, Israel explained that they are always asking, “How does an issue connect to the world? How could there be a new threat from this? Is this [a presumed inherited way of thinking about an issue] continuing to be right?”
To try to get government ministries to think beyond their “silos,” the Intelligence Ministry official said, “Every two months, the next time is on August 5, 40 government ministries and intelligence organizations are brought together by the Intelligence Ministry... We pick a topic for them; we frame things with a security and diplomacy broad perspective.”
Various organizations “present their top five agenda items,” including the Mossad, and everyone has an opportunity to see how national security connects to civilian concerns and vice versa, Israel said.
During the coronavirus crisis, the Horizon division was also used to handle performing comparative studies of what foreign countries were doing in terms of contact tracing.
Now, IDF intelligence, with its larger resources, has taken on that mission.
But in the early stages, this smaller and leaner Intelligence Ministry unit was about to jump onto the issue with less red tape to provide much more immediate feedback.
After around 25 years serving in IDF intelligence and dealing with sensitive weaponry at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Israel is now trying to help take this new Intelligence Ministry unit over new horizons.