IC: Technology is a threat and a tool

Intelligence community leaders say technology continues to present new threats and new opportunities to combat them.

INSA panel. Comey, Brennan, Rogers, Stewart. Photo credit Herman Farrer.
 

Left to right: FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers and DIA Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart participated in a wide-ranging discussion about cybersecurity at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington. (Photo credit: Herman Farrer)

Technological advances continue to enable new threat vectors as the intelligence community races to adopt new technologies to confront those threats, say intelligence community leaders.

The leaders of six intelligence agencies addressed some of the central threats and policy challenges facing the IC at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington. All agreed that the agencies must continue to work with one another and with international partners to share intelligence and tools to combat growing cyberthreats and terrorism.

"That's why a number of us are involved in some transformational activities inside our organizations so that we can adapt to a new operating environment," CIA Director John Brennan said.

The CIA created a new digital directorate about a year ago in one of the biggest organizational shifts in that agency's history. Meanwhile, the National Security Agency is in the midst of a reorganization designed to forge closer integration between its signals intelligence and information assurance operations.

Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said agencies must embrace the power of artificial intelligence and "systems that can learn and operate at the speed of cyber, not at the speed of human beings making decisions."

"This is not a binary solution that it's either human analysis or it's artificial intelligence," said NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers, who is also commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Especially when dealing with cyber defense and the volume of threat activity, "it's got to be some combination of the two."

On the subject of cyber defense, the IC is still investigating whether Russia was behind the hack of the Democratic Party. Although industry experts have made the attribution and President Barack Obama has noted it, IC leaders are holding off on accusing Russia of trying to manipulate the U.S. electoral system.

"The FBI's job is to work very hard to understand whether that's going on and what are all the dimensions of it," FBI Director James Comey said.

Brennan echoed that comment, saying the CIA is also trying to "understand what the abilities are, what the potential is in terms of any foreign actors that try to exploit or manipulate our systems here at home" and pass along what it learns to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, which are investigating the hack.

Comey said there is one silver lining. "The beauty of the American voting system is that it is dispersed among the 50 states and that it's clunky as heck," he said. "It's not exactly a swift part of the internet of things, so it is hard for an actor to reach our voting processes."

Rogers said the U.S. must change the calculus for cyber criminals. "Many have come to the conclusion that there is not a significant price to pay for some pretty aggressive action, and I don't think that is in our long-term interest," he said.

Comey said technology and encryption in particular are working against the IC in the fight against the Islamic State group.

"We're facing this 'going dark' phenomenon where we cannot see these people in the way in which they are communicating," he said. "I love end-to-end encryption. I don't want anybody looking at my stuff. I don't want anybody looking at my banking information, my health care information."

Although encryption helps keep the American people protected from cyberthreats, at the same time, it is clashing with public safety concerns, Comey said, and opponents are spending too much time demonizing each other.

"This has become such a charged emotional issue that we're not really having that dialogue and we're not getting into what's in the realm of possible," Rogers said.

He added that the American people must explore a wide range of security and privacy options. "But perhaps most important of all, as a nation we need to sit down and talk about 'what should we do?'" Rogers said.

The IC leaders agreed that they will need to meet with the next presidential administration to explain their capabilities and priorities, and then let the administration set its agenda for the IC.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said DIA can organize around the new president's objectives, but he had a word of caution for America's next leader: "Be ready for the world as it is, not as you'd like it to be."

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