Intelligence Leaders tell Senators: AI and Machine Learning Bring Many Benefits to Government but Pose Security Risks

The U.S. intelligence community is concerned about adversaries using developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence to target military assets.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held its Worldwide Threats hearing Feb. 13, with the entire leadership of the intelligence community (IC) on hand to testify. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman, asked whether the proliferation of initiatives around machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to prompt new national security concerns.

“We’re seeing all our peer competitors invest in these kinds of technologies, because it will help them get to their decision cycles faster, digest information better, help them in the battle space,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Ashley pointed out that our own intelligence agencies are pursuing these capabilities because it will take these kinds of technologies to be able to analyze social media, for instance. “We’re never going to be able to afford the workforce to go through all the material on social media,” he said.

Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, said there are a number of adversaries pursuing these capabilities, but he called out the People’s Republic of China specifically.

The PRC “clearly has a national strategy designed to harness the power of artificial intelligence to generate strategic outcomes … positive outcomes for them,” Rogers said. “Look at their research, [look] at how it’s affecting the amount of data they’re going after.”

Rogers said that five or ten years ago he thought adversaries would never be able to target the vast quantities of data used by the IC, because there was too much of it, it was too dispersed, and the adversaries didn’t have the compute power to analyze it.

“I don’t have those kinds of conversations any more,” he said. “With the power of machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data analytics … Our data concentrations are targets of attraction to a whole host of actors, and we have seen the PRC and others engage in activities” targeting them.

“What’s changed is the world around us,” said Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. “What we used to hold exclusively because we had some exclusive capabilities is now more shared.”

DIA’s Ashley suggested it is not a question of simply having the technology but who is prepared to utilize its potential.

“Who’s able to harness it, operationalize it, and put it into effect?” he said.

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