The CIA Fears the Internet of Things

The battleground of tomorrow is everywhere at once.

National Journal
Patrick Tucker, Defense One
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Patrick Tucker, Defense One
July 25, 2014, 11:57 a.m.

The ma­jor themes de­fin­ing geo-se­cur­ity for the com­ing dec­ades were ex­plored at a for­um on “The Fu­ture of War­fare” at the As­pen Se­cur­ity For­um on Thursday, mod­er­ated by De­fense One Ex­ec­ut­ive Ed­it­or Kev­in Bar­on.

Dawn Mey­er­riecks, the deputy dir­ect­or of the Cent­ral In­tel­li­gence Agency’s dir­ect­or­ate of sci­ence and tech­no­logy, said today’s con­cerns about cy­ber war don’t ad­dress the loom­ing geo-se­cur­ity threats posed by the In­ter­net of Things, the em­bed­ding of com­puters, sensors, and In­ter­net cap­ab­il­it­ies in­to more and more phys­ic­al ob­jects.

“Smart re­fri­ger­at­ors have been used in dis­trib­uted deni­al of ser­vice at­tacks,” she said. At least one smart fridge played a role in a massive spam at­tack last year, in­volving more than 100,000 in­ter­net-con­nec­ted devices and more than 750,000 spam emails. She also men­tioned “smart fluor­es­cent LEDs [that are] are com­mu­nic­at­ing that they need to be re­placed but are also be­ing hi­jacked for oth­er things.”

“The mer­ger of phys­ic­al and vir­tu­al is really where it’s at. If we don’t grok that then we’ve got huge prob­lems,” she said. Grok, a ref­er­ence to Robert A. Hein­lein’s 1961 nov­el Stranger in a Strange Land, de­scribes the tele­path­ic com­mu­nion of thoughts, feel­ings, and fears.

Smart cloth­ing, she said, could cre­ate se­cur­ity and ac­cess prob­lems, spe­cific­ally for the CIA. The same tech­no­lo­gies that could al­low mil­lions to bet­ter mon­it­or and man­age their health could cre­ate a trans­par­ency and work­place prob­lems that “Idon’t want to have to deal with.”

It has a sort of sci­ence-fic­tion­al flare, but Mey­er­riecks says there’s no ex­cuse for be­ing caught off-guard by tech­no­lo­gic­al events, or “punc­tu­at­ing tech­no­lo­gic­al dis­rup­tions” that are clearly vis­ible in trends today.

“The mer­ger of bio­lo­gic­al and cy­ber, those will be viewed as dis­ruptors al­though we all know they’ve been in­ves­ted in for dec­ades at this point. When someone fi­nally fig­ures out how to pro­duct­ize it in a way.” By way of an ex­ample, she brought up the cell phone, “When it goes from the brick to something I can’t leave my house without, then it’s dis­rupt­ive.”

In many ways that day has already ar­rived. Dick Cheney, formerU.S. Vice Pres­id­ent, told 60 Minutes that he had a wire­less pace­maker in­stalled in his chest in 2007 that would have al­lowed his doc­tor to mon­it­or his heart, on­line. He didn’t en­able the BlueTooth broad­cast­ing fea­ture for fear of it be­ing hacked. We have a hard enough time se­cur­ing com­puters on desks. We may already face the risk of an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of baby boomers be­com­ing vul­ner­able to leth­al cy­ber at­tacks be­cause of In­ter­net-en­abled med­ic­al devices.

Here are some oth­er takeaways from the dis­cus­sion:

The Eco­nom­ic War Is Afoot

When asked if the United States was already en­gaged in an eco­nom­ic war, with in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty as the prize, Mey­er­riecks re­spon­ded that “Ab­so­lutely, this the case.” That’s evid­ent in the fact that the U.S. is now su­ing five mem­bers of the Chinese mil­it­ary for what amounts to in­dus­tri­al es­pi­on­age, steal­ing trade secrets for per­son­al profit. It’s a law­suit against in­di­vidu­als, but the Chinese gov­ern­ment, as a whole, took it per­son­ally and sus­pen­ded par­ti­cip­a­tion in a joint­ber-se­cur­ity work­ing group.

Quantum Com­put­ing Won’t Save You

“On our best day we’re 20 years away,” Mey­er­riecks said of true quantum com­put­ing (defined roughly as com­put­ing that every­one in com­put­ing sci­ence can agree is ac­tu­ally quantum in nature, achiev­ing en­tan­gle­ment.) “When it hap­pens, we have a huge chal­lenge. We are mak­ing sig­ni­fic­ant in­vest­ments and pay­ing a lot of at­ten­tion,”

Steve Chan, the dir­ect­or of the Net­work Sci­ence Re­search Cen­ter at IBM who joined Mey­er­riecks on stage in As­pen, said that the search for the quantum Holy Grail was not only con­fused but largely un­ne­ces­sary. Quantum is gen­er­ally re­ferred to as com­pu­ta­tion that takes ad­vant­age of the unique be­ha­vi­ors of quantum bits, or qubits, to rep­res­ent in­form­a­tion in mul­tiple ways, as op­posed to ones and zer­os. “Nowadays,” he said “we can do cus­tom chip design so we can use bin­ary rules but three di­git rep­res­ent­a­tions that get ba­sic­ally the same value, with few­er di­gits, which saves com­pu­ta­tion­al cycles.”

Put Your Faith in Big Data

The threats and the op­por­tun­it­ies tech­no­lo­gic­al ac­cel­er­a­tion oc­cupy the same space.

When asked about the ma­jor in­vest­ment areas of the fu­ture, Lynn Dugle, a vice pres­id­ent at mil­it­ary con­tract­or Ray­theon en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally offered up big data and de­scribed the “op­por­tun­ity to know things, through cy­ber-ana­lyt­ics, through per­son­al ana­lyt­ics.” She cited a com­mon in­dustry fore­cast that more than 50 bil­lion ma­chine-to-ma­chine con­nec­ted devices will in­hab­it the globe by 2020 (ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from Cisco), versus ap­prox­im­ately 13 bil­lion today.

Call­ing Big Data a big op­por­tun­ity has be­come al­most “glib” ac­cord­ing to Mey­er­riecks. But it’s an area where the CIA is also fo­cus­ing its ma­jor in­vest­ments and build­ing the cap­ab­il­ity to do the sort of highly-tar­geted and in­di­vidu­al spe­cif­ic data col­lec­tion that would make today’s NSA activ­it­ies look pos­it­ively quant. It’s big data big data that “dwarfs today’s twit­ter feeds,” she said, and em­phas­ized that is was data spe­cif­ic to an in­di­vidu­al, not every­one, “that’s tar­geted col­lec­tion. Not ran­dom col­lec­tion.”

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