The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Deputy Director for Digital Innovation (DDI) flagged competition with China, the need to create better artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, and pressures to ramp up digital capabilities as three of the agency’s biggest tech priorities at September 13 event organized by GovExec.

CIA Deputy DDI Jennifer Ewbank talked about those challenges, and how they fit into the agency’s larger mission.

Her office’s tech portfolio at the agency is daunting, and includes accelerating development and integration of digital and cyber capabilities across all of CIA’s mission areas – including cybersecurity and AI – and building the digital acumen of the CIA workforce through training and education.

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On the immediate tech priorities list, Ewbank placed at the top the “sophistication and sheer scale” of the cyber threat from China. The country presents the most persistent and pervasive cyber espionage threat to U.S. government and private sector networks – “full stop” – she said.

The second top challenge the agency faces is the need to be the first to create seamless AI capabilities. “For us, we are just going to have to work smarter, harder, and faster if we want to win this race,” Ewbank said.

The final challenge is capacity, Ewbank said. Digital capabilities are in high demand, and the agency does not have infinite resources to provide everything, she said, which often presents a challenge when deciding what to prioritize.

In all of those areas Ewbank said she sees an opportunity for the agency to rise to the challenge of keeping the U.S. safe considering new and evolving digital threats.

“We have an informal motto at CIA,” Ewbank continued, “We accomplish what others cannot accomplish, and we go where others cannot go.”

“But when you distill it down, our core mission is really strategic insight. It’s the ability to avoid strategic surprise,” she said.

The CIA’s values derive from this core mission, but, Ewbank said, the new digital landscape the agency is operating in requires values that are not traditionally emphasized in government. She went on to name five that DDI is intentionally trying to practice:

  • Break barriers – a new way of thinking and challenging assumptions;
  • Take risks;
  • Embrace failure – “you don’t learn and grow if you don’t fail,” she said;
  • Adopt an innovation culture; and
  • Tackle integration and the horizontal merging of silos.

Ewbank also talked about what she personally believes is a “high stakes and very urgent challenge” that keeps her up at night: digital autocracies.

“It’s these two competing visions for the future. On the one hand . . . we view technology in service of society – to promote economic prosperity, promote transparency, support our democratic values,” she said.

“But there is an opposing vision out there that is shared by a growing club of what I would call digital autocracies,” she said. “[They] see digital technologies as a tool to monitor, control, and ultimately repress their own societies. And, often enough, to undermine other governments around the world.”

Ewbank also emphasized the value of creating thriving workforces and healthy partnerships.

Partnerships are everything, she said. And recruiting and retaining top talent is another way to keep employees on top of the agencies mission.

“Safeguarding America’s economic and national securities is a shared value, a shared goal for all of us in America. And that’s one of the reasons we value these smart partnerships with U.S. industry. We get deeper exchanges of information, more effective use of resources, and frankly, tremendous assistance in solving new and complex problems,” Ewbank said.

“We need to be that really close partner with industry if we want to stay on the cutting edge, to leverage these new technologies for our mission which is only becoming more complex,” she said.

“We need to bring in these new technologies [and] rapidly integrate them into CIA’s mission,” Ewbank said. “That helps us blend our traditional strengths in human intelligence, technical intelligence, and now digital intelligence. And those things working together are really necessary for success in the intelligence business today.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.