American Spy Agencies Are Having a Hard Time in the Age of Data

We’ve witnessed technical progress in the past. But we’ve never seen the convergence of so many new technologies change so much in such a short time. In three ways, the current situation poses a significant challenge to American spy intelligence organizations.

To begin with, technological advances are altering the security landscape by creating new uncertainties and empowering new adversaries. The Soviet Union was America’s main adversary during the Cold War. It was a terrifying time during the Cold War, but it was also a simpler one. The primary intelligence priority for the United States was apparent. “What would Moscow think?” was the lens through which every foreign policy move was examined.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasts off with the NROL-79 satellite on March 1, 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.Spy Satellites & More

A wide range of negative actors is now using technology to threaten people over long distances. China is waging enormous cyberattacks to steal American intellectual property and developing space weapons to disrupt US military spy satellite communications before the war even begins. Russia is waging information warfare on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. At least nine countries have already utilized autonomous combat drones, which are already in use by more than a third of the world’s governments. Terrorist groups are utilizing Google Earth to plot attacks and online video games to recruit members. Despots in emerging countries use high-tech repressive methods. With the click of a mouse, weak nations and non-state actors may cause immense disruption, devastation, and deception.

Power and geography provided security for most of history. The strong posed a threat to the weak, rather than the other way around. Countries were separated by oceans, and distance was important. Not any longer. In this period, the United States is both powerful and susceptible to a dizzying array of threats, many of which move at the pace of networks. It’s a big cry from the slow-moving Soviet five-year plans of the past few decades.

Data is the second difficulty of the digital age. Intelligence is a process of creating sense. The CIA, for example, collects and analyzes data to assist policymakers in understanding the present and anticipating the future. It’s not always the case that intelligence is correct. However, it outperforms the best alternatives, which include guesswork, opinion, and gut instinct.

In the past, the collecting and processing of spy information were dominated by spy agencies from a small number of powerful countries. They were the only ones with the money and know-how to build multibillion-dollar satellites, crack complex codes, and collect data on a large scale. The National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted around 200 million foreign emails, phone conversations, and other signals every day in 2001. Only a few countries or corporations could even come close.

Massive Amount of Data Is Being Collected Every Day

Data is becoming more accessible, and American spy agencies are scrambling to stay up. More than half of the globe is connected to the Internet, with 5 billion Google searches every day. Cell phone users, whether they realize it or not, are capturing and sharing events in real-time, turning everyone into intelligence collectors. Anyone with an Internet connection can view Google Earth satellite data, use face-recognition software to identify people, and follow events on Twitter.

When pro-Trump rioters attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, online sleuths immediately began mining images and videos posted on social media to assist law enforcement agencies in identifying the perpetrators. Faces of the Riot is a website made by an anonymous college student. The student reviewed hundreds of videos and thousands of photos published by rioters and others on the social media site Parler and retrieved images of people who may have been participating in the Capitol siege using widely accessible facial detection software.

It’s difficult to fathom the enormous volume of web data available today: Every day in 2019, Internet users transmitted 500 million tweets, 294 billion emails, and 350 million photographs to Facebook. According to some estimates, the amount of data on Earth doubles every two years.