How Does Moore’s Law Affect Counterintelligence?

by N. M. GUARIGLIA May 15, 2012

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has four strategic functions.  The first function is collection, or the gathering of raw data.  The second function is analysis, or providing policymakers with estimations regarding this data.  The third function is espionage, or covert operations the type we see in spy movies.  The fourth function is counterintelligence, which is an effort to protect data and U.S. intelligence from foreign intelligence services.

Currently, the CIA may have bitten off more than it ought to chew.  It is unwise to task an overwhelmed bureaucracy like the CIA to keep up with the exponential pace of technology.  This trend is occurring most haphazardly within the realm of counterintelligence.

Technology is a fine servant but a dangerous master.  Technology changes in irregular ways and compels us to reexamine the nature of secrecy.  The Stuxnet computer worm, though mysteriously helpful in our efforts against the Iranian nuclear program, is the most advanced piece of malware ever discovered.  In theory, it could turn its sights on the United States.

But Stuxnet is nothing compared to quantum computing.  Moore's Law states the capabilities of microprocessors double every 18 months.  In 10 to 20 years, this law may collapse.  Silicon Valley will "go quantum."  Circuits will be measured on a molecular and atomic scale.  Computers will be infinitely more powerful than they are today.  According to Michio Kaku, quantum physicists today can conduct simple multiplication problems on just seven atoms!  In the near future, when millions of atoms are able to be utilized, no CIA code will be safe.

This is the technological trajectory of the world.  There is a great debate as to whether or not cyber-warfare is the fifth domain of war (along with land, sea, air, and space).  Some believe cyber-warfare is merely a tactic within the framework of the preexisting domains of war, much like terrorism.  Others believe it is a new dimension altogether.  Former DNI Mike McConnell once suggested going so far as to "reengineer the Internet." 

The Chinese have conducted cyber-operations against the United States and continue to do so.  If this were the Cold War, U.S. counterintelligence would be tasked with keeping pace.  But the 21st century will be very unlike the 20th century.  Our enemies, whether big powers like China or networks like al-Qaeda, will always undertake that metamorphosis which best exposes our soft underbelly.  The premise of counterintelligence this century, therefore, is not who we shall encounter but rather what we shall encounter.

Suppose a quantum computer in 2025 can break every CIA code.  It's safe to say that this technology won't remain confined.  Someone will pay top dollar for it.  Due to an American-created global market, the natural lifespan of technology leads to its eventual dissemination throughout the world; it becomes cheaper and more plentiful.  Such is the history of war between the West and its undemocratic enemies; the latter having grown parasitic on Western technology they did not create and cannot adequately use on their own.

This is the dangerous irony of living in an open society.  The United States develops brilliant technologies for national security purposes.  These technologies eventually transcend their initial purpose and enter the marketplace.  They become commercialized for the betterment of our society, and are then sold in the global market to other countries.  In other words, American military technology matures and is put to a civilian purpose, whereas other nations-perhaps hostile to the U.S.-take the civilian-version of that technology and put it to a military purpose.  This creates an international environment of parity.  American policymakers should expect this to continue.

For example, imagine what a secret CIA document on Joseph Stalin from 1949 would have contained.  In all likelihood, it would have been somewhat similar to today's Wikipedia page on Stalin.  Information that was once hard to collect is now easy to collect (and will grow easier).  The U-2 spy plane has given way to Google Earth.  Open-source intelligence is prevalent throughout the Internet.  Cloud-computing, according to some scientists, will have the same impact as electricity generators had on the frozen water trade in the early 20th century.

The implication for counterintelligence is profound.  The CIA may have to become the "De-Centralized" Intelligence Agency, and defer more to private companies with expertise in nanotechnology, particle physics, and encryption codes.  We may soon reach a point where 20th century intelligence tactics-even 19th century intelligence tactics-will regain their strategic relevance. 

When the "grid" goes down, or when anyone can get on the grid with relative ease, it might be time to take the important stuff off the grid.  Counterintelligence might need to go back to its roots; when files were kept in file cabinets; when secrets weren't encrypted or coded, but were kept in their most pure form-in the mind of a loyal patriot.

Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is an essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.

 



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