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Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence

Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence PDF

Author: Amy B. Zegart

Publisher: Princeton University Press


Publish Date: February 1, 2022

ISBN-10: 0691147132

Pages: 424

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

IN JUNE 2014, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came across the following Tweet:

At first, I thought it was a joke. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is notoriously secretive—so shadowy, even its public affairs officers don’t always tell you their names. But the Tweet was real. America’s cloak-and-dagger agency had finally joined the social media age. The Internet went wild. “Who knew?—they have a sense of humor,” reported CNN.1

The CIA’s Twitter debut was a light-hearted moment in a darkening landscape. New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet connectivity, quantum computing, and synthetic biology are disrupting global economics and politics at unprecedented speed. Never before has the United States faced a more dynamic and dangerous world. For the CIA and the seventeen other agencies comprising the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), this is a moment of reckoning.2
Artificial intelligence is transforming both commerce and defense in ways that could destabilize social orders and alter the global distribution of power. Computer scientist Kai-Fu Lee estimates that AI could eliminate up to 40 percent of jobs worldwide in the next fifteen to twenty-five years, in sectors ranging from trucking to the service industry.3 AI is also poised to revolutionize how wars are fought—automating everything from logistics to cyber defenses to unmanned fighter jets that can sense and attack faster than humans.4 As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work wrote, “AI is accelerating innovation in every scientific and engineering endeavor.”5
Not since electricity has a breakthrough technology ushered in so much potential promise and peril. Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that whoever leads in AI development “will become the ruler of the world.”6 More than a dozen countries have launched national AI initiatives. And China has made no secret of its plans to become the global leader in AI by 2030, part of its strategy to challenge U.S. economic and military dominance.7 American experts and policymakers are sounding the alarm. “We are in a strategic competition. AI will be at the center. The future of our national security and economy are at stake,” noted the bipartisan National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in a 2019 report.8
AI isn’t the only technology reshaping the world. Internet connectivity is supercharging politics, fueling protest movements like the Arab Spring and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, repressive crackdowns like China’s persecution of the Uighurs, and Russian information warfare campaigns that reach deep into the societies of other nations. The so-called Internet of Things (everyday devices with Internet connections) is spreading to billions of toys, cars, appliances, and more—and bringing cyber vulnerabilities with it.9 Facebook algorithms are deciding what news we read and influencing how we think, enabling the manipulation of populations at scale.

There is greater upheaval still to come. In 2019, Google announced it had achieved “quantum supremacy”—a computing breakthrough so powerful that a math problem a supercomputer would need ten thousand years to solve could be cracked by its machine in just three minutes and twenty seconds. Experts likened it to the Wright Brothers’ first flight: the dawn of a technological era opening vast new possibilities. Not all of them are good. Quantum computing could eventually unlock the encryption protecting nearly all of the world’s data today.10
Synthetic biology is enabling scientists to engineer living organisms and create new ones not found in nature, with the potential for revolutionary improvements in the production of food, medicines, and data storage, as well as new weapons of war.11 Because living cells are programmable like computers, they could eventually be engineered to make just about anything. Potential uses include manufacturing plastics, creating plants that can detect chemical munitions by changing color, and even designing bioweapons that target individuals on the basis of their DNA.12 Here, too, Chinese military leaders have made innovation a top priority, calling biotech the new “strategic commanding heights” of national defense.13
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated many of these trends, sending entire economies and societies online and fueling the use of bio-surveillance technologies like smart jewelry that tracks symptoms14 and data analytics that can identify which rooms of a building an infected person used and whether they were wearing a face mask.15
We’ve seen technological advances before. But never have we seen the convergence of so many new technologies changing so much so fast. This moment is challenging American intelligence agencies in three profound ways.
First, technological breakthroughs are transforming the threat landscape by generating new uncertainties and empowering new adversaries. During the Cold War, America had one principal enemy: the Soviet Union. The Cold War was a dangerous time, but it was simpler. America’s top intelligence priority was clear. Every foreign policy decision was viewed through the lens of “What would Moscow think?”
Now, a wide array of bad actors is leveraging technology to threaten across vast distances. China is launching massive cyberattacks to steal American intellectual property16 and building space weapons to cut off U.S.

military satellite communications before the fighting ever starts.17 Russia is using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to wage information warfare.18 Three dozen countries have autonomous combat drones and at least nine have already used them.19 Terrorist groups are using online video games to recruit followers20 and Google Earth to plan their attacks.21 Despots in developing nations are employing high-tech repression tools.22 Weak states and non-state actors can inflict massive disruption, destruction, and deception with the click of a mouse.
For most of history, power and geography provided security. The strong threatened the weak, not the other way around. Oceans protected countries from one another, and distance mattered. Not anymore. In this era, the United States is simultaneously powerful and vulnerable to a head-spinning number of dangers, all moving at the speed of networks. It’s a far cry from the plodding pace of Soviet five-year plans from a few decades ago.
The second challenge of the digital age involves data. Intelligence is a sense-making enterprise. Agencies like the CIA gather and analyze information to help policymakers understand the present and anticipate the future. Intelligence isn’t always right. But it beats the best alternatives: guesswork, opinion, and gut feel.
In the old days, spy agencies in a handful of powerful countries dominated the collection and analysis of information. They were the only organizations with the resources and know-how to build billion-dollar satellites, make and break sophisticated codes, and collect information at scale.23 In 2001, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted about two hundred million foreign emails, phone calls, and other signals a day.24 Few countries or companies could come close.
Now, data is democratizing, and American spy agencies are struggling to keep up. More than half the world is online,25 conducting five billion Google searches each day.26 Cell phone users are recording and posting events in real-time—turning everyone into intelligence collectors, whether they know it or not.27 Anyone with an Internet connection can access Google Earth satellite imagery, identify people using facial recognition software, and track events on Twitter.

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