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TheStreet Open House

CIA May Have Bought Faulty Drone Software

Stock quotes in this article: CRA, NZ

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- In 1971, Marshall Peterson flew helicopter sorties over Vietnam. One day, hovering over a village near My Lai, he spotted what appeared to be a Viet Cong running into a straw hut.

Rather than letting loose a burst of machine-gun fire, Peterson positioned the end of the helicopter skid under the lip of the hut's roof. He flipped it off to get a closer look. Peterson found a scared old man inside, unarmed, and left him alone. The helicopter flew away.

In the battlefield, it's called "getting intimate," an act of due diligence to avoid killing innocent civilians. In modern warfare, close-quarters contact of wars past has been replaced by long-distance automation, with soldiers controlling unmanned drones from electronic consoles half a world away.

Four decades later, the issue of wars that appear like video games rankles Peterson. As it turns out, his company is in the midst of a lawsuit that alleges, indirectly, that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency may have bought faulty software to target terrorists in Afghanistan.

From helicopters to supercomputers

Peterson, 62, is an aeronautical engineer who worked for the Army Missile Command after the Vietnam War ended. He subsequently launched a career in supercomputing at Digital Equipment Corp. He left DEC after 13 years to join Celera Genomics (CRA), where he oversaw the supercomputer that sequenced the human genome, and helped to birth the biotechnology industry.

Now Peterson is the chairman of Intelligent Integration Systems, a Boston-based company that specializes in high-speed data-analysis systems. The company, which he co-founded in 2005, is embroiled in a legal battle with Netezza (NZ), based in nearby Marlborough, Mass., which competes with Oracle (ORCL) and Teradata (TDC). Netezza makes data-warehouse appliances, which are computer systems designed to store and process massive amounts of information.

At issue is the source code behind Spatial, which is geographic-data-analysis software that can parse and pinpoint map-based information such as hurricane patterns, wireless phone calls and, potentially, people.

Intelligent Integration Systems developed the technology behind Spatial, which initially ran on an earlier Netezza's data-warehousing platform, the Netezza Performance Server. Netezza alleges Intelligent Integration Systems was contractually required to develop a new version of the Spatial software for its newer platform, dubbed TwinFin, and sued Intelligent Integration Systems accordingly -- along with terminating its relationship with the company.

(Before he co-founded data-analytics company Intelligent Integration Systems, Marshall Peterson flew helicopters in Vietnam. Here he discusses the military's remotely operated predator-drone program, based on his knowledge as a pilot and supercomputer pioneer.)

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