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CIA and Technology: Interview with DST CTO

Since its founding in 1947, CIA has used technology to help meet its complex mission needs. The Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) is the Agency component that provides the innovative technological solutions required to collect intelligence and help solve our nation’s most pressing national security challenges.

We sat down with the DS&T’s Chief Technology Officer to learn more about the CIA’s approach to technology today and what’s in store for the future.

How does the DS&T use technology to help advance CIA’s mission?

Technology plays an increasing role, not just in the Intelligence Community (IC), but in most of contemporary society as well. If you look at how quickly the world is adapting to new technology compared to many decades ago—it is much faster.  That is the global environment that we live in, and that is also the environment that the IC operates in. So, for the CIA’s mission -- to collect intelligence and to protect people in doing so -- technology plays an ever increasing role.

To help us do this, many of the technologies that get used in the private sector can also be used for our mission capabilities. The vast majority of technology that we use often comes from companies and enterprises in the private sector.

One of the resources that we have to help us access commercial technology is In-Q-Tel, an independent not-for-profit enterprise that makes strategic investments in companies that have technologies we can use. It gives us access to new cutting-edge technology.

What are the biggest technological opportunities/challenges facing the Agency today?

One of the biggest challenges is keeping up with the pace of changes in technology. For example, mobile technology—the product life cycle is under six months. That is hard enough for the commercial sector to keep up with—it is even harder for us at CIA. And we must keep up with it because technology that is available can be used by our adversaries against us. Our officers in the field need to know what technology is out there that can be used against them when they are putting their lives on the line for the mission. It’s a huge challenge.

But even more importantly, we have to have that cutting edge technology because it gives us the best mission capability in terms of collecting and analyzing intelligence, while protecting our officers at the same time. Because technology can do such cool things, we can use it to do even more amazing things.

So, with all the advancements in modern technology, it is getting harder to work clandestinely in this environment, but this is where tradecraft comes into play. It’s all about risk management. There is no such thing as a zero-risk society. It’s hard, but it does not mean we can’t do it.

Where do you see technology at the CIA going in the next five years?

There are two areas that are particularly important for CIA. First, Identity Intelligence will play an increasing role in helping our officers operate worldwide. This is much harder in the current environment because of all the digital dust people leave behind, so we’ll be looking at Identity Intelligence more closely in the coming years.

Secondly, with the explosion of commercial technology and the increasing number of devices connected to the internet, there has been an exponential increase in the data streams available. We’re doing a lot of things to help us tackle this issue.

Another industry that is about to burst across the world is autonomous systems—robotics. We’ll see some fascinating things start to happen, beyond robotic vacuum cleaners. Modern cars, for instance, will have technology that eliminates human errors.  For CIA, we’ll be able to use that to take some of the risk out of operations by relying on technology as opposed to putting humans in certain situations.

What is the biggest myth about technology at the CIA that you’d like to debunk?

There are several, but the biggest one is that none of those Jason Bourne movies are real.  Images of CIA officers flying through the city, for example—that type of stuff doesn’t actually happen. The reality is, we’re a clandestine organization. We hide in plain sight. If we do our mission right, you will never see us.  Hollywood makes great movies, but the reality is that intelligence work is much more sophisticated than what you see in the movies.

Also, technology doesn’t solve all problems. Technology is very powerful, but it cannot do everything.

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Related Stories:

CIA Creates a Cloud: An Interview with CIA’s Chief Information Officer Doug Wolfe

The CIA and You: CIA’s Contributions to Modern Technology

Directorate of Science and Technology: Technology So Advanced, its Classified


Posted: Jan 09, 2015 01:10 PM
Last Updated: Feb 04, 2015 06:00 PM