This story is adapted from Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence, by Amy B. Zegart.
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 property and building space weapons to cut off US military satellite communications before the fighting ever starts. Russia is using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to wage information warfare. Three dozen countries have autonomous combat drones and at least nine have already used them. Terrorist groups are using online video games to recruit followers and Google Earth to plan their attacks. Despots in developing nations are employing high tech repression tools. 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. In 2001, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted about 200 million foreign emails, phone calls, and other signals a day. 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, conducting 5 billion Google searches each day. Cell phone users are recording and posting events in real time—turning everyone into intelligence collectors, whether they know it or not. Anyone with an internet connection can access Google Earth satellite imagery, identify people using facial recognition software, and track events on Twitter.
On January 6, 2021, when pro-Trump rioters violently attacked the US Capitol to prevent congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election, causing the deaths of five people, online sleuths immediately started mining images and video posted on social media to help law enforcement agencies identify the perpetrators. One anonymous college student even created a website called Faces of the Riot. Using widely available facial detection software, the student scanned hundreds of videos and thousands of pictures shared by rioters and others on the social media site Parler and extracted images of those who may have been involved in the Capitol siege.