Tony Thorne was one of the Apollo program officials, advising the team on the task of merging large amounts of data. Thorne, a former counter-terrorism officer with Wales’ Extremism and Counter-Terrorism Unit, said he was appalled by what he had seen in Scotland. “Our process out of Scotland has been incomplete or inadequate in any way,” he said.
Key issues highlighted during the test run immediately resurfaced, according to emails and internal memos from 2014 and 2015 reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Officials described a system that “frequently crashed” and “timed out after 10 minutes”, malfunctioning so badly that they greatly increased “the time it takes to perform a simple task”.
Even basic searches can cause trouble. One officer described how he typed in a search term and received an overly broad result. He started manually sifting through the files to find what he really needed – but when he did, the system crashed. When he logged back in, he entered the same search terms and found “the search results are different”.
Officials using the new system also reported serious difficulties with what the NCIA was designed to solve: communication with other forces and agencies. After a suspicious person was flown into the UK, an official reported that they had received a critical intelligence report from airport officials in an unreadable format. Another told a member of the Apollo team that the NCIA’s inability to share intelligence with other regions still using the old system was a significant risk “that could lead to intelligence failure.”
The quality of intelligence entering the system is often poor. In some cases, the NCIA is flooded with irrelevant information; in other cases, important intelligence does not appear on the NCIA at all. One official complained that the system “automatically ingests” documents not related to terrorism. “This issue has always been a topic of conversation,” the official wrote, “but now that we live there, nothing more seems to be done.”
Four sources told BuzzFeed News that the NCIA was built on the template of an existing system called the “Department of the Interior Large Major Inquiry System.” The problem, some say, is that HOLMES is used to investigate incidents that have occurred, while NCIA is designed to prevent attacks from happening. Another official told BuzzFeed News that building NCIA on top of the HOLMES system would lead to flaws that would make a lot of intelligence hard to find.
Officials responded to those concerns in their emails and official reports. A key feature borrowed from the Sherlock Holmes system is a Google-like search tool that should enable officials to quickly retrieve documents that contain a word, regardless of where that particular word appears on the record. If feasible, this would make it easier to find specific intelligence about potential terrorists from hundreds of thousands of documents.
But the search tool doesn’t work. Officials found that if they entered the same search term multiple times, they would get different results each time. The search tool also can’t scan birth dates, making it harder to find the right file.
This shortcoming coincides with another major problem. Earlier, it became clear that many duplicate records would go into the NCIA – because it was compiling data from multiple forces that often had the same files for a given individual. An internal report seen by BuzzFeed News acknowledged that this would lead to a “chain reaction” that hindered analysts. But executives ultimately decided that “de-duplication will not happen” until NCIA is used throughout the UK.
A Manchester official who later started using the NCIA told BuzzFeed News that duplicating work makes finding what you want like “looking for a needle in a haystack” — a struggle in which “you may miss important intelligence leads.”
Counter-terrorism detectives working at the NCIA are increasingly concerned. “Unfortunately,” he wrote to colleagues in an email in February 2014, “because we are all fully aware that the NCIA has been struggling to deliver on its promises and falls short of its goals.”
The rollout of NCIA continues to advance.