A three-letter agency came to a four-letter conference that hasn’t always welcomed intelligence organizations with an unlikely request: Join us.
“We’re looking to engage with all of you,” said David Cohen, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a panel discussion(Opens in a new window) at 2023 South by Southwest (SXSW) on Monday afternoon. “We need to work even more with all of you to get our job done.”
That hour-long discussion between Cohen and his fellow speakers–Jennifer Ewbank, deputy director for digital innovation; Sheetal Patel, assistant director of the agency’s Transnational and Technology Mission Center; and Nand Mulchandani, chief technology officer–served both as an introduction to the agency’s work and as a recruiting sales pitch.
The four of them suggested a common interest between CIA operatives overseas and privacy-minded SXSW attendees here: the potential harm from increasingly pervasive digital sensing and tracking.
“When we work with a source, an asset overseas, we have a solemn obligation to protect that source,” Cohen said. Adding that “ubiquitous surveillance” endangers those sources, he said he supposed that many audience members also wanted to use technology to disrupt that tracking: “If you have any good ideas, we’d be happy to hear about them afterwards.”
Ewbank then took the audience back to Cold War tradecraft by CIA agents in the USSR. “Everything you did was observed, recorded, held and kept and analyzed,” she said. “And yet we still had to meet spies on the streets of the Soviet Union.”
That challenge forced the agency to create its own technological countermeasures: “We created the world’s first secure text messaging system,” called Discus(Opens in a new window).
Saying “you are all welcome for the tech that you are using now,” Patel then outlined the CIA’s role in supporting or advancing such technologies as multi-touch touchscreens, magnetic resonance imaging, and even the gun-residue testing employed by the Transportation Security Administration at airport checkpoints
“But most of all, our strength lies in our people,” she said. “So if any of you want to sign up, we are recruiting.”
She and her colleagues repeatedly noted the CIA’s exhibit space across the street in the Austin Convention Center, where attendees later gathered to see virtual reality and glasses-free-3D demos and pick up such trade-show giveaways as CIA-branded lens-cleaning cloths.
Mulchandani, who had worked at a series of Silicon Valley firms before coming over to the public sector, picked up that line of thought. “Having been a money-grubbing capitalist for 25 years, you come over to the government side and there is a sense of mission,” he said. “I can’t tell you much, but it’s awesome behind the curtain.”
The panel left more time for audience questions than most SXSW sessions, and the first one evoked the establishment-skeptical mindset that less than a decade ago had SXSW giving keynote slots to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange(Opens in a new window) and self-exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Asked if the CIA currently engaged in domestic surveillance, Cohen said no. “Totally fair question,” he said. “We are a foreign intelligence agency. Our collection is focused entirely overseas.”
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Those lines haven’t always been respected, as the Senate’s Church Committee(Opens in a new window) found in its post-Watergate investigations; Cohen did not mention that past.
Another skeptical question about CIA covert actions led Ewbank to emphasize the limited space it has between diplomacy and military action: “It’s rarely used, and only on the instruction of the president.”
Mulchandani answered a query about the state of global competition in technology by saying that work will never end: “We’re in a locked, infinite marathon on tech with every single one of our global competitors.”
Ewbank then contrasted the ability of the U.S. to work with other countries with that of China. “We have strategic partnerships that we can leverage any day of the week,” she said. “The PRC has transactions.”
An audio recording of the panel is available to listen to on the SXSW website(Opens in a new window).
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