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Selfies, not secrets—Intelligence expert Amy Zegart talks espionage in our algorithmic age

Podcast & Video

This episode features Sean Speer in conversation with Stanford University professor and Hoover Institution senior fellow Amy Zegart on her fascinating new book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence. They discuss American intelligence in the post-9/11 era, the dangers of polarization, the four biggest geopolitical threats to the West, and how open-source information is changing the intelligence-gathering game.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Amy Zegart who is a professor of political science at Stanford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and author of the fascinating new book Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence. Thank you so much for joining us, Amy, and congratulations on the book’s release.

AMY ZEGART: Thank you, Sean. It’s a delight to be able to say I finished a book rather than writing a book.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with some contemporary context. You describe the post-9/11 era as one of the most successful periods in the history of American intelligence. What changed after 9/11? How did U.S. intelligence agencies respond to the dramatic failure of the 9/11 attacks?

AMY ZEGART: There are a lot of changes after 9/11. The first was a major reorganization of our intelligence agencies, the first since 1947. So, there is now a director of national intelligence that’s in charge of really coordinating a lot more across our intelligence community. 

Your viewers may not know or listeners may not know, there are 18 different agencies in the U.S. intelligence community. There was a lot more focus put on counterterrorism, a lot greater coordination between intelligence collection and analysis, and military counterterrorism operations just to name a few. So, far-reaching changes in terms of budget priority organization across the U.S. government. 

SEAN SPEER: Notwithstanding the successes in the years following 9/11, you argue that this is no time for the U.S. intelligence community to rest on its laurels. If 9/11 was a paradigmatic moment for American intelligence, you’ve made the case that we’re facing another big moment requiring what you describe as “a wholesale reimagining of how the intelligence community operates.” 

How did Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election campaign represent the emergence of a new type of threat requiring new and different capacities on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies?

AMY ZEGART: Well, Sean, as you allude to, the threat landscape never sleeps. And so, right after 9/11, I still remember I talked to one senior intelligence official who told me his biggest worry was by the time we mastered the Al Qaeda problem, would Al Qaeda be the problem? And that’s, in fact, what’s happened. So, in the 20 years that we’ve been fighting the global war on terrorism, and U.S. intelligence agencies have gotten very good at it, the world has fundamentally changed. And so, Russia’s 2016 election interference was the canary in the coal mine. It was the part of that campaign, that intelligence agencies never saw coming, was the use of social media, right? And so Russian operatives masquerading as Americans sowing dissent, generating disinformation, and trying to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. 

And I say canary in the coal mine because now, of course, deception is even easier online than it was in 2016. And a whole host of new technologies are enabling anybody to collect and analyze and produce intelligence anywhere at any time. So, it is a radically different world, in a whole host of ways; challenging every aspect of intelligence, how we recruit assets, how we think about counterintelligence, who counts as an intelligence customer, who needs intelligence to keep a country safe. Now, we know it’s voters who need intelligence too, not just people with security clearances. So, when I say it’s a radical new world, think about secret agencies now having to produce products in the unclassified world for mass consumption. It’s really a dramatic transformation.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great setup Amy, to a big idea in the book, which of course, is the role of technology and its use in the world of intelligence and the broader intelligence landscape. Do you want to elaborate a bit on some of the new and emerging technologies and how they represent, in your mind the biggest threat to U.S. national security?

AMY ZEGART: Sure, well, Sean, as you know, foreign policymakers always believe they face unprecedented challenges, but this time, it’s actually really true. When I talk about emerging technologies, it’s really the convergence of a whole number of technologies. We think, number one, internet connectivity: more than half the world is online. More people have cell phones today than running water. We are connected in ways we’ve never been before. 

Artificial intelligence, which is transforming economics, politics, and societies in profound ways, from your medical care to military weapons. It’s quantum computing, which could render encryption obsolete; making our data available to all sorts of bad guys, right? It’s biotechnology, which is really the frontier of amazing discoveries, but also concerning discoveries as well. And it’s the commercial satellite revolution, so now we take for granted that we can get incredible imagery and Google Maps can help us navigate wherever we need to go. That availability of that imagery is making the world more transparent, which has all sorts of implications for national security.

It’s the convergence of all these technologies that are creating really a revolutionary moment in sensemaking. Which is what intelligence agencies do: how to understand the world around us.

SEAN SPEER: If non-nation state actors were the biggest threat in and around 9/11, how should we think about the key source of threats today in this world of technology? Is it China? Is it terrorist groups? Is it anarchist groups who want to disrupt electricity or telecommunications grids? How can American intelligence prioritize their efforts in this new era of technology-enabled national security threats?

AMY ZEGART: Well, the threat landscape has never been more complex, and it’s never been more uncertain. You know, in the good old days of the Cold War, right, there was one animating question, which was, “What would Moscow think of that?” And that really anchored intelligence in a single adversary. So, it’s a much more complicated threat landscape. We haven’t even talked about climate change, so, things that are, you know, transnational in nature where there’s no one adversary that’s generating climate change. But as I think about, you asked about prioritization, there really are four countries that have the convergence of four vectors that I worry about the most, that I think are priorities of the intelligence community, and they’re not going to be surprising, right? It’s Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. 

Now, why those four? Think about four key attributes that they all have. They are all cyber-adversaries; very sophisticated cyber actors that can deceive, destroy, degrade, disrupt across borders at the click of a mouse. So, they’re all cyber powers. All of them seek territorial aggression against their neighbours. We’re living with Russian troops on the border of Ukraine right now. We’re living with fears of China’s invasion of Taiwan. North Korea and South Korea, and Iran and its neighbours. They all seek territorial aggression against neighbours. They all have nuclear weapons or aspire to have them. These four countries, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, are nuclear powers don’t forget that. And they all seek to disrupt the international order, going rogue in many ways. They don’t subscribe to Western democratic notions of universal freedoms, human rights, democracy, etc. All four of these countries: cyber, nuclear, aggressive territorially against partners and allies and their neighbours, and seek to revise the international order. And I worry about those the most for those reasons. 

SEAN SPEER: You just unpacked the risks represented by the convergence of nation-state ambitions and these technological capacities. What about corporate espionage? What’s the role of the U.S. government to protect against threats to intellectual property and other corporate secrets? How seriously should Western corporations in general and American companies, in particular, be taking these threats?

AMY ZEGART: Well, you know, there’s the old joke that there are only two kinds of companies: those who have been hacked and those who have been hacked and don’t know it yet. So, corporate espionage is a huge concern and it doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re in. You don’t have to be a tech company or defense company to be worried about your cybersecurity. It’s a huge issue. The critical question is what’s the role of government in protecting us in cyberspace? And we haven’t sorted through that yet in the United States. I think countries around the world are grappling with that question: are we on our own as citizens in a country? Is the government supposed to defend us, help us respond? And so, we’re seeing particularly in the United States in the past couple of years, a dramatic focus on what should the government be doing. 

And, you know, just to remind your listeners that U.S. intelligence is in many ways unusual in that the government does not collect or analyze intelligence on behalf of individual companies. The U.S. doesn’t do that. Many of our allies and partners do, right, to help particular companies in particular industries in their countries. The U.S. doesn’t do that. So, what do you do when there are nation-states that are seeking wholesale theft of your intellectual property, dual-use technology that can advantage them commercially and militarily? That’s the conundrum we’re in, and what role should the government play to protect us. 

SEAN SPEER: We’re speaking to you at Stanford. So, if I can ask a question about Silicon Valley: the controversial Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel has argued that Google and others are making major compromises on national security in pursuit of access to the Chinese market. What do you think about that claim? Is it justified? Must U.S. companies accept the trade-off between market access on one hand, and security risks, and the question of integrity vis-à-vis China, on the other hand?

AMY ZEGART: Well, I think, you know, what Peter Thiel has put his finger on is a fundamental mismatch of incentives. Companies that are American companies have global shareholders, global markets, and global incentives. They have some interest in national security, but their interests are not perfectly aligned with national security. And so, we’re seeing that play out in real-time with access to the Chinese market. What are companies willing to do to gain access to the Chinese market, or to have access to Chinese supply chains that ultimately make the nation less safe? And so, this is a long-term challenge. 

I think, you know, sitting here in Silicon Valley, we hear a lot about how companies and the government don’t trust each other. I think that’s kind of overstated. I think we’ve seen a lot more trust-building since the Edward Snowden revelations several years ago. I think the relationship has gotten much better. The China threat, I think, has really been a sobering reminder of how much Silicon Valley companies and the U.S. government actually do have mutual interests. I think this is an opportune moment for the government and Silicon Valley leaders to really find common cause in a host of issues. And I say this having hosted, just in December with colleagues here at Hoover, H.R. McMaster and Raj Shah and others, a tech track to dialogue. And our thinking was that we really needed to have an off-the-record, trust-building set of conversations for leading companies to understand and collaborate with U.S. government leaders, and vice versa. As I say, the suits and the hoodies, right, need to be able to speak the same language. And so, I think we’re making progress there. But as you point out, this is a structural challenge because of the incentive piece, and it’s not gonna go away anytime soon.

SEAN SPEER: That’s interesting. Amy, as a Canadian observing American policymaking and American politics, it’s hard not to see the level of polarization, and the tendency to politicize issues that in the past weren’t necessarily politicized, or at least to this extent. You have experience advising administrations on both sides of the aisle. 

Do you want to just talk a bit about whether, in your view, national security has become overly politicized, particularly in the context of allegations of fraud and so on in the 2020 presidential election? And is there a way to, in effect, protect issues of national security from the tendency towards polarization and politicization, and ensure a kind of bipartisan consistency in dealing with these threats, which of course, necessarily involve a kind of longer-term view than the typical political cycle?

AMY ZEGART: Well, as I look at national security threats that confront the United States, I think the biggest threat to the United States is the United States. Our polarization is the single greatest threat to our future prosperity, security, liberty, and if you look at public opinion polling, you’ll see a shocking percentage of Americans believe that the 2020 election was stolen by President Joe Biden, which is absolutely not true. And so, this rampant misinformation, disinformation, polarization in our society is a foundational threat, I think, to this country. So, I’m really worried about it. 

But hope springs eternal. I like to think that politics does stop at the water’s edge, and there is room for bipartisan agreement. And also, I’ll give you my glimmer of hope, which is, if you actually look at the Senate Intelligence Committee, it has operated in a remarkably bipartisan fashion when it comes to national security. So, that committee on a bipartisan basis issued a lengthy and very compelling report on Russia’s election interference in 2016. They have been remarkably collaborative when it comes to dealing with national security threats, despite this incredibly polarized moment. So, it’s possible. It’s getting harder, and I hope that we can make progress. But the public opinion polling data is very concerning.

SEAN SPEER: If I can ask a question about Canada. Canada is a middle power, its relationship with the United States, of course, is is fundamental both to its economic interests, but also its national security interests.

As American policymakers and the U.S. intelligence community sort of shifts its focus to some of the issues that you set out in the book, how can Canadian policymakers, how can the Canadian government, be supportive as a middle power in the pursuit of some of these new national security and intelligence concerns around technology, and its use both as a security threat to the nation-state but also to supply chains and other parts of our bilateral institutional arrangement?

AMY ZEGART: I think, you know, Canada-U.S. relations have always been pivotal, and I think they’re going to be even more so in the future. Canada is one of the Five Eyes as you know, so a close intelligence partnership between the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. I think those partnerships are going to deepen in the future. And what I hear, especially when it comes to technology, is a growing interest in coalitions of the like-minded: liberal democratic countries that want to share technological capabilities, that have shared norms about how the how the internet should operate, for example, and that collaborates even more when it comes to supply-chains. 

So, for example, there’s, as you know, a lot of concern about semiconductor supply-chains today, not just because of the supply-chain shortages, but because of the threat of a Chinese action against Taiwan, where Taiwan Semiconductor has a large lab, right, that is responsible for a crucial component of semiconductor manufacturing. Well, it turns out that supply chain, as you probably know, has a critical choke point in the Netherlands. So, the most important piece of equipment to make high-end semiconductors comes from one company in the Netherlands. So, when we think about like-minded partners and allies that share the same values and interests across the world, there’s a lot of benefit that we could harness by thinking more systematically about our supply-chains, our technology sharing, our intelligence sharing in the future. I think we’re going to see more of that moving forward.

SEAN SPEER: Maybe just a penultimate question. We’re having this conversation not too long after the 30th anniversary of China’s ascension to the World Trade Organization. How should American policymakers in general, and the intelligence community in particular, think about America’s relationship with China? Do you subscribe to the growing tendency to describe it as a Cold War? Or do you think that that description obscures more than it clarifies?

AMY ZEGART: I see the allure of a Cold War moniker on this current relationship challenge. We have China but I think it does obscure more than it clarifies. In the Cold War—you know, this is now getting on your terrain, which is economics. In the Cold War, right, we had literally a divided economy. There were the capitalist economies, and then the Soviet bloc and no one bought anything made by the Soviet bloc. The U.S.-China rivalry is completely different. It’s because we’re so intertwined economically that it causes so many new challenges there. I do think, however, that the ideology is very much at play and the U.S.-China relationship and the way it was in the Cold War as well. So, those who say, “China doesn’t have an ideology; China just wants to get rich,” I think that’s mistaken. I think China has a view. It has a view of surveillance; it has a view of freedom; it has a view of minority rights; it has a view of international order. And it’s not anything that Canadians or Americans would consider, you know, a Canadian or American point of view. 

So, in that respect, I think it does resemble the Cold War, but the differences are more stark. And just to get back to technology for a minute, one of the crucial challenges today that we didn’t have in the Cold War is that all of those major technologies that are driving innovation in the economic sphere, in the commercial sphere, are dual-use. They’re inherently dual-use. So, facial recognition can make it fun to find photos of your friends on Facebook; facial recognition also enables persecution of dissident groups. AI can enable you to find pattern recognition of things to help doctors decide what your X-rays show, for example, but AI can also enable autonomous weaponry that could really render American military might powerless. So, every major technology that has a commercial use has a political or military use, and that is different than it was in the Cold War. Fundamentally different.

SEAN SPEER: Amy let’s end by coming back to something you observed earlier in our conversation. If the intelligence game is inherently about anticipating new and emerging threats, what should the administration and the intelligence community, more broadly, be doing now to prepare for the next set of threats? Those that we may not be able to anticipate, but will inevitably shape the future of policymaking and national security activities?

AMY ZEGART: Well, it’s always a challenge to pierce the fog of the future and to try to anticipate what’s coming next. So, I think, what’s the key enabler? What’s the most important enabler for intelligence agencies to do that well? And the answer, I think, is called open-source intelligence. Secrets aren’t as valuable as they used to be. In a world where we’re swimming in data, there is incredible insight that you can gain from what is publicly available online, in ways we couldn’t have even dreamt of 10 years ago. 

So, you know, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the best intelligence wasn’t secrets. It was selfies. Selfies that Russian soldiers posted on social media for their family and friends to see with Ukrainian highway signs in the background and timestamps. You could see exactly when they did it. When I went to strategic command, which was our commander in charge of our nuclear weapons in the underground bunker, I asked what they did about Twitter. Sure enough, Twitter is in the command bunker on the feed on those giant screens alongside the classified feeds.

When you think about the power of insight, what’s going on in Twitter in real-time, the power of individuals to record events around them and post them in real-time, satellite imagery, detecting Chinese nuclear missile silos, for example, which happened a few months ago, open-source information is the name of the game. And so, what the intelligence community needs to do is get out of its orientation towards secrets, which is important, but it has to embrace the ability to harness insight from open-source information and all of the people around the world that are involved in collecting and analyzing it now. And that is a sea change in how the intelligence community has operated.

SEAN SPEER: Those are fascinating observations and only a piece of what people will find in your new book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American intelligence. Professor Amy Zegart, thank you so much for joining us today at Hub Dialogues and sharing your insights into this fascinating nexus between espionage and technology, and how it will shape the future of the national security threats facing the United States and Canada. Thank you very much.

AMY ZEGART: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.