Multiple tech-related issues including cybersecurity, social media manipulation, and intellectual property theft took center stage today at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing featuring six U.S. intelligence organization chiefs fielding senators’ questions about threats to the country from adversaries who they said are becoming more dangerous as they better understand and use technology.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the committee, said that communications technologies and associated cybersecurity threats are among the factors that are creating “a new battlefield” on which the U.S. “has been playing catch-up,” and he told the intelligence agency heads “we want to make sure you have the resources and authorities to win.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the committee, said he was struck by the “multiplicity” of threats facing the U.S., not the least of which were cybersecurity threats.

Intellectual Property Theft

Following the Justice Department’s indictment earlier this week of Chinese communications equipment maker Huawei for alleged wire fraud, trade secrets theft, and undermining sanctions against Iran, state-sponsored intellectual property theft by Chinese companies drew particular outrage from Warner and other committee members.

“We hoped China would be a good citizen,” Sen. Warner said, but went on to assert that Chinese tech giants are “beholden” to the government and the Communist Party in China, and as such are active participants in an economic policy that seeks “by hook or by crook” to steal tech secrets from U.S. firms “with the help of the Chinese state.”

Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, said China has had a “remarkable rise” over the past 15 years “while we were sleeping,” and asserted that a “significant amount of that was achieved by [China] stealing” intellectual property from U.S. companies.

“It’s a serious issue that has to be dealt with,” he said, adding, “to counter it, we have to expose it.”

Coats also referred to a “proposal” in the works to help deal with alleged Chinese IP theft, but seemed to quickly cut off his description of that and instead suggested he could discuss it with committee members in a closed hearing session set for later today.

Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, echoed Coats’ sentiments, and said he believed that the American people “were waking up to understand” the blurred line between the Chinese government and businesses, “especially the line between lawful behavior . . . and lying, cheating, hacking, and stealing.”

Shutdown Impact

Sen. Warner blasted the impact on the partial Federal government shutdown on intelligence agencies, including the FBI and others, saying it was “unconscionable” that agency staff were forced to work for five weeks without pay.  “It’s no way to run a country,” he said, adding, “brinksmanship on the budget must come to an end.”

FBI Director Wray said the shutdown was “incredibly negative and painful for 35,000 members of the FBI,” and said the organization is “still addressing the impact” not only on FBI employees but also on contractors on which it depends.

Sen. Warner has offered legislation that aims to prevent any future Federal government shutdown caused by lapsed appropriations by creating a mechanism to automatically renew government funding at the prior-year level with adjustments for inflation.

Tech Adoption Toughens Adversaries

DNI Coats pledged that election security–including combating social media manipulation by foreign powers–“will continue to be a top priority” for the intelligence community, which is gearing up to safeguard the 2020 U.S. election cycle from what it expects to be “refined new tactics” from adversaries.

Over the longer term, however, advances in artificial intelligence (AI), communications technology, and materials sciences–and the ability of adversaries to develop threats based on those–“will bring new and unforeseen challenges to our health, comity, and security,” Coats said.  Dealing with the rapid development of emerging technologies, he emphasized, “becomes a major challenge for the intelligence community to stay ahead of the game.”

Social Media Manipulation

Wray spoke with optimism about intelligence agency work with social media providers to combat manipulation efforts of the type seen prominently in the 2016 U.S. election cycle, but also stopped short of spilling much in the way of details.

Wray called the FBI’s work with social media providers a “bright spot” in 2018 compared to 2016, with the bottom-line effect being that providers were able to “take quicker action based on information that we gave them.”

He said he could not share “a lot of details” about the effort, but added, “Now that we have momentum, we are looking forward to growing that partnership.”

Data Integrity

Robert Cardillo, Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, told senators that the security of the many streams of data that his agency uses is paramount. “There is not a more important issue on desk . . . At the heart of our profession is integrity and reliability,” he said.

“In a world in which we can’t agree on what is true, our job becomes much more difficult,” Cardillo said.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.