In the first public conference given by the CIA, the agency's head defended the practice of surveilling cyberspace for threats, but questioned the extent to which potent tracking capabilities should be applied.
“If we are to understand the world we cover and to provide our policymakers with the intelligence that they expect, if not demand, we must immerse ourselves in that frontier and adjust our tradecraft accordingly," CIA Director John Brennan said at the event held Wednesday. "In developing powerful tools to meet this challenge, CIA and the community partners face a question that may be unprecedented in our history: If we possess an extraordinary technical capability and are legally authorized to use it, should we necessarily do so?"
Cyberspace presents difficulties for intelligence analysts because it has no power structure, he said.
"The problem is much more than cyberattacks per se; it is also about the technologies that make it possible to study bomb-making on the Internet, to case a target remotely, and to coordinate among far-flung associates in order to carry out a sophisticated attack," Brennan said. "Aided by the cyber domain, individuals in small groups, not only nation states, now have the power to sow enormous destruction -- greatly expanding the number of threats that our government must monitor to keep our nation safe."
The daylong conference came on the heels of the CIA's jaunt into the domains of Twitter and Facebook on Friday. The agency's first tweet -- "We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet" -- had been retweeted about 300,000 times as of Wednesday afternoon. And the agency has more than 600,000 followers so far.
Brennan said the cat-and-mouse game of following bad actors covertly online poses a threat to the intelligence workforce.
"Digital footprints may enable us to track down a suspected terrorist, but they may leave our officers vulnerable as well," he said. "Websites and digital platforms can shed light on the practices of despotic regimes, but they can also be used to inspire violence against our citizens and interests."
Wednesday's event took place at Georgetown University and also was live streamed over the Internet.
During Brennan's 30-minute speech, he also emphasized the importance of continuing to collect intelligence in a society now loaded with big data.
"I can assure you that CIA still provides information and analysis that social media, news organizations and our foreign intelligence partners simply cannot," he said. "A key reason is the type of information our agency collects, not just intelligence but human intelligence."
He added: "At their best, human sources go beyond the dry facts of an issue and help discern the intent of an adversary…We must focus our efforts on uncovering secrets that only human sources can acquire: those that are typically locked inside the inner circle of an adversary."