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I Work for N.S.A. We Cannot Afford to Lose the Digital Revolution.

Technology is about to spend our entire national security infrastructure.

By Glenn S. Gerstell

Mr. Gerstell is the general counsel of the National Security Agency.

The National Security Operations Center occupies a large windowless room, bathed in blue light, on the third floor of the National Security Agency’s headquarters outside of Washington. For the past 46 years, around the clock without a single interruption, a team of senior military and intelligence officials has staffed this national security nerve center.

 

The center’s senior operations officer is surrounded by glowing high-definition monitors showing information about things like Pentagon computer networks, military and civilian air traffic in the Middle East and video feeds from drones in Afghanistan. The officer is authorized to notify the president any time of the day or night of a critical threat.

 

Just down a staircase outside the operations center is the Defense Special Missile and Aeronautics Center, which keeps track of missile and satellite launches by China, North Korea, Russia, Iran, and other countries. If North Korea was ever to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile toward Los Angeles, those keeping watches might have half an hour or more between the time of detection to the time the missile would land at the target. At least, in theory, that is enough time to alert the operations center two floors above and alert the military to shoot down the missile.

 

But these early-warning centers have no ability to issue a warning to the president that would stop a cyberattack that takes down a regional or national power grid or to intercept a hypersonic cruise missile launched from Russia or China. The cyberattack can be detected only upon occurrence, and the hypersonic missile, only seconds or at best minutes before the attack. And even if we could detect a missile flying at low altitudes at 20 times the speed of sound, we have no way of stopping it.

 

The threats of cyberattack and hypersonic missiles are two examples of easily foreseeable challenges to our national security posed by rapidly developing the technology. It is by no means certain that we will be able to cope with those two threats, let alone the even more complicated and unknown challenges presented by the general onrush of technology — the digital revolution or so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution — that will be our future for the next few decades.

 

The digital revolution has urgent and profound implications for our federal national security agencies. It is almost impossible to overstate the challenges. If anything, we run the risk of thinking too conventionally about the future. The short period of time our nation has to prepare for the effects of this revolution is already upon us, and it could not come at a more perilous and complicated time for the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the other components of the intelligence community.

 

The immediacy and specificity of the war on terror following the Sept. 11 attacks permitted the intelligence community to reorient itself relatively quickly and effectively from the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. But the intelligence community and its allies who rely on one another for information-sharing must now adapt to adversaries with new capabilities — principally China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, each of which presents different and complex threats — while still not forsaking the counterterrorism mission.

 

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