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How the U.S.'s top intel agencies are thinking about AI


AI is front of mind these days. A lot of us are spending a lot of time pondering how AI can make our lives easier or flipside, whether it's going to put us out of a job. But how would you be thinking about AI if you were in charge of a major U.S. intelligence agency? Well, this week I put that question to FBI Director Chris Wray. How does AI complicate his mission?

CHRIS WRAY: At the moment, where it's most dangerous is taking what I would call kind of JV criminal actors or foreign actors and making them varsity level. What I'm more concerned about is the day, which is coming fast, where AI is going to be good enough to take the sort of black belt adversaries and make them that much more effective.

KELLY: Chris Wray and I were speaking on stage at an international conference on cybersecurity at Fordham University in New York. With us was the director of another U.S. spy agency - General Paul Nakasone, who runs the National Security Agency, which does surveillance, code breaking, cyber snooping. What you're going to hear these next few minutes is part of our conversation. Here's General Nakasone picking up with something he is focused on - protecting AI.

PAUL NAKASONE: Interesting that our adversaries - they're all using U.S. AI models, which tells me that the best AI models are made by U.S. companies. So that tells me that we need to protect that competitive advantage of our nation - of our national economy going forward. So how do we do that? How do we ensure that what we're doing in signals intelligence is giving the insights to what U.S. companies need to know in terms of, how do you protect your intellectual property? What's the tradecraft? What are the techniques? Who are the actors that are going to come after you, and how are they going to do that?

KELLY: Is China the most formidable adversary in this space?

WRAY: Well, China has a bigger hacking program than that of every other major nation combined and has stolen more of Americans' personal and corporate data than every nation, big or small, combined. If I took the FBI's cyber personnel and I said, forget ransomware, forget Russia, forget Iran, do nothing but China, we would be outnumbered 50 to 1.

KELLY: Fifty to 1?

WRAY: Fifty to 1. And that's probably a conservative estimate because the Chinese government has also shown a penchant, like some of those other countries, to hire cybercriminals or enlist the help of cybercriminals. So that's additional workforce, if you will, that they can take advantage of that, I can assure you, we don't. And so from a scale perspective, the most sweeping and broad threat to our innovation, our intellectual property, and, in the long run, our economic and national security is the People's Republic of China. And I want to be clear - not the Chinese people, not Chinese Americans, certainly, who are often the victims of Chinese government overreach, but the Chinese Communist Party.

KELLY: So state-sponsored.

WRAY: State-sponsored.

KELLY: What do they want to know?

WRAY: Just about every industry that's out there, they want to target what makes it tick. We've seen it in everything from biotech to aviation to advanced technologies like AI, to different forms of health care, agriculture. And you can go right on down the list - it's everything from Fortune 100 companies to small startups out in Silicon Valley. Every one of our 56 field offices has investigations that lead back to the Chinese government. We've had an increase over the last I don't know how many years of about 1,300% in how many investigations related to the Chinese government threat that we're pursuing. At one point, not that long ago, we were opening a new China-related investigation every 12 hours. And I can assure you that it's not because FBI agents don't have enough else to do.

KELLY: General Nakasone, from your perch, what does that look like? Are you outranked 50 to 1?

NAKASONE: So I would begin with, of course, we're never going to match them quantitatively. This is not where our advantage is. Our advantage is qualitatively. This is the partnerships that we have. This is the insights that we get from our incredible U.S. intelligence community. This is the work that we do with academia. This is the workforce that we have. We will never be able to match the number of hackers that China has. But I will tell you what - the number is one thing, the quality is a complete another one. And so the soundbite shouldn't be 50 to 1. The soundbite should be what is the qualitative advantage that the United States has, and how do we maintain that? That's the piece that I think that Chris and I are so committed to is to make sure that we have that continuing edge in terms of what we're able to do.

KELLY: General Paul Nakasone there of the National Security Agency and Cyber Command and FBI Director Chris Wray. Well, we also talked about Russia and about the extent to which, in this era of artificial intelligence and cyber espionage, the extent to which they are still focused on actual human spies running around. Here's my question to Wray.

You gave comments at the Spy Museum last year, in which you said - you were talking about the Russian counterintelligence threat, and you said the number of Russian spies operating inside the U.S. is, quote, "still way too big." How big?

WRAY: I'm not going to give a number. I will tell you that over the last several years - let's say the last five years - we have made significant strides in expelling Russian spies, as have a whole slew of our allies. But we haven't done enough of it. And there are - as I said in the earlier event, there are too many Russian spies here. We are a target-rich environment for all the Russian intelligence services. And it shouldn't be lost on anyone that we're sitting here not far from the U.N., and you can draw your own conclusions from my concerns there.

KELLY: What do they want to know?

WRAY: They want to know what we know. That's the essence of spying - so it helps them make better decisions. Intelligence ultimately is just information that drives decision making. So they want to learn as much as they can about what we think, what we're concerned about because it'll inform their decision making. And it's part of our role, as it has been for 115 years, to try to block that.

KELLY: General, you look...

NAKASONE: Well, I was waiting for the number. I'm, you know...

WRAY: (Laughter).

NAKASONE: ...I wanted to write that down.

KELLY: You ask him. He'll tell you.

NAKASONE: So, again, I come back to yesterday. I spent time at the field office here in New York City - fantastic opportunity for me to better understand what goes on in the largest field office in America and the FBI. And part of that is also to think about, so how do we use our signals intelligence capability to better understand the missions and requirements to finding these spies? How do I identify the patterns outside the United States with foreign actors that would give us an indication that, hey, Chris; this is where we can assist? This is, again, I think, where we've tried to think differently about our partnership, whether or not it's been on the NSA side or the cybercrime side to say, OK, hard challenge, problem? This is what we can bring to it.

KELLY: Part of a wide-ranging conversation this week in New York with National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone and FBI Director Chris Wray.


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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.