Governance lags tech on info sharing, CIA's Brennan says

The CIA director warns that the rapid technological improvements in spycraft and information collection have outpaced the ability of worldwide intel agencies to cooperate.

John Brennan

CID Director William Brennan

Modern technology has enabled new counterterrorism techniques, but it remains it difficult, "technically as well as legally," for the CIA and other agencies to monitor global goings-on," CIA Director William Brennan said Nov. 16.

In the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people, Brennan urged greater cooperation and information sharing between global intelligence agencies, especially outside of the "traditional trans-Atlantic partnerships," citing U.S. work with Egypt and Russia as important steps forward.

In the United States, agencies with overlapping jurisdictional mandates have been able to build an information sharing architecture, over the last 15 years or so, that has taken into account "different types of limitations, requirements, responsibilities and authorities," Brennan said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. However, "extending that architecture internationally when you have so many different organizations around the world – we are still working on that," Brennan said, adding: "The technology is there, but making sure we are able to handle information while at the same time respecting privacy rights and civil liberties – this is one of the challenges in terms of how you balance all that."

The CIA director praised Congress' efforts to finally produce an information sharing bill to allow for government to push out more threat indicators to businesses. And he acknowledged the ease with which bad actors can twist technology for nefarious purposes, whether it's the Islamic State's social media campaigns or "miscreant hackers" carrying out social engineering to get at Brennan's own emails.

"As an intelligence officer, much of my job involves dealing with the unintended consequences of the cyber revolution," he said.

At the same time, Brennan said, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups have "gone to school on what it is that they need to do to keep their activities concealed from the authorities" -- an allusion to the ongoing debate about the ubiquity of high-grade commercial encryption.

Without explicitly mentioning the Edward Snowden leaks, Brennan also said that he hoped the Paris attacks would be a "wake up call," particularly in parts of Europe, "where there has been a misrepresentation of what the intel and security services are doing that are design to undercut" the ability of terrorist groups to plan and execute attacks.

"It was not a surprise this attack was carried out," Brennan said. "We had strategic warning. We knew that planning by ISIL was underway."

Brennan also touted the development of the new Directorate for Digital Innovation as a way to centralize the CIA's use of technology in analysis, espionage and covert action, saying it was one of most significant organizational changes in the last 50 years.

"Multiple elements of the agency in the past have responded to the challenges of the digital era," he said, "but if we are to excel in the wired world, we must place our activities and operations in the digital domain at the very center of all of our endeavors."