AI, Deepfakes and the Other Tech Threats That Vex Intel Leaders

CIA Director Gina Haspel accompanied by FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington Jan. 29.

CIA Director Gina Haspel accompanied by FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington Jan. 29. Jose Luis Magana/AP

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Top U.S. intelligence officials had a lot to say about tech at the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing.

Technological threats from Russia, China and other bad actors dominated exchanges Tuesday between senators and top intelligence officials at a hearing on worldwide threats.

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, cloud computing, machine learning, deepfakes and biosciences will “change our way of life, but adversaries are investing and are likely to make use of these things, too,” said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“The speed and adaptation of new technologies will continue to drive the world in ways we can’t understand,” Coats added. “It becomes a major challenge to the intelligence community to stay ahead of the game and have resources directed toward how we need to address these threats.”

Coats testified alongside FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert Ashley, National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo.

Much of the intelligence officials’ remarks mirrored elements of the National Intelligence Strategy released last week. The strategy focuses the intelligence community’s efforts to assess how “disruptive technologies” could harm national security.

The committee’s top two members—Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C. and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va.—pressed officials about continued efforts by Russia to disrupt the election process.

Wray confirmed that Russians “continued to” engage in election disinformation campaigns through social media in the 2018 midterm elections, and added that “other countries are taking an interest in that approach.”

Election meddling is only one form of what Nakasone called “the weaponization of data.” The explosion of big data has provided numerous benefits to the intelligence community—more information means more nuanced analysis by analysts—but it has two primary cons. First, Nakasone said adversaries are interested in controlling big data, a task made easier by the ubiquity and reduced costs of commercial technologies.

Second, Coats said the dramatic increase of available data through sensors, mobile devices and other means has intelligence agencies “awash in data.” The NSA and other intel agencies have turned to cloud computing and new analysis methods to handle this data deluge, but the challenge isn’t going away soon.

The intelligence officials also used the hearing as a recruiting pitch to talented techies. The government’s reputation as a stable place to work took a hit during the extended shutdown, and more than 30,000 FBI agents were among those federal employees furloughed.

“There is nothing more rewarding than protecting the American people,” said Wray, sharing a brief story in which two former “high-tech” FBI employees left for the private sector only to return to the FBI a few months later.

Nakasone added: “If it’s cutting edge, we’ll be doing it at the NSA.”