Quantum Computing and Counterintelligence

The United States intelligence community has four strategic functions. The first is collection, or the gathering of raw data through a whole host of means. The second is analysis, or providing policy makers with interpretations and estimations regarding this data. The third is covert action, or espionage -- the James Bond-stuff midway between diplomacy and war. The fourth function is counterintelligence: efforts to protect data, information, and U.S. intelligence from foreign adversaries and intelligence services. Since the CIA’s formation in 1947, each function has gradually obtained more tools, more methods, and thus more responsibilities. The satellite changed the nature of collection. Surveillance systems changed the nature of espionage.  And so forth.

At the beginning of 2011, the intelligence community may have bitten off more than it ought to chew. It is unfair and unwise to task an overwhelmed bureaucracy to keep up with the exponential pace of technology. This trend is occurring most haphazardly within the realm of counterintelligence.

Technology is a fine servant but a dangerous master. It changes in unpredictable ways. It redefines the boundaries of human potential. It compels us to reevaluate the nature of secrecy and our notions of privacy. The recent WikiLeaks controversy is small potatoes, the tip of the iceberg. The Stuxnet computer worm, though mysteriously advantageous in our efforts against the Iranian nuclear program, is the most advanced piece of malware ever discovered. It could turn its sights elsewhere. It could change everything.

Then there’s quantum computing. Moore’s Law states the capabilities of microprocessors double every 18 months. In ten to twenty years, this law will likely collapse. Silicon Valley will go quantum. Circuits will be measured on a molecular and atomic scale. Computers will be infinitely more powerful than they are today. According to Michio Kaku, quantum physicists today can conduct simple multiplication problems with just seven atoms. In the near future, when millions of atoms are able to be utilized, no CIA code will be safe.

This is the technological trajectory of the world. There is a great debate as to whether or not cyber-warfare is the fifth domain of war (along with land, sea, air, and space). Some believe cyber-warfare is merely a tactic within the framework of the preexisting domains of war, much like terrorism.  Others believe it is a new dimension altogether, requiring our attention and unwavering vigilance. Former DNI Mike McConnell wants to go so far as to “reengineer the Internet.”

Though much of this is turf-battle infighting, it is a fact that the Chinese have conducted cyber-operations against the United States. In a bipolar context like the Cold War, U.S. counterintelligence would be tasked with keeping pace. But the twenty-first century will be very unlike the twentieth-century. Our enemies, whether big powers like China or networks like al-Qaeda, will always undertake that metamorphosis which best exposes our soft underbelly. The underlying premise of counterintelligence this century, therefore, is not who we shall encounter but rather what we shall encounter.

Suppose a quantum computer in 2025 can break every CIA code. It’s safe to say that this technology won’t remain confined.  Someone will pay top dollar for it. Due to an American-created global market, the natural lifespan of technology leads to its eventual dissemination throughout the world; it becomes cheaper and more plentiful. Such is the history of war between the West and its unfree enemies, the latter having grown parasitic on Western technology they did not create and cannot adequately use on their own accord.

This is part of the dangerous irony of living in an open and democratic society. We develop astounding technologies for national security purposes. These technologies eventually transcend their initial purpose and enter the marketplace. They become commercialized for the betterment of our society and are then sold in the global market to other countries. In short, our military technology matures and is put to a civilian purpose, whereas other nations -- perhaps hostile to us -- take the civilian-version of that technology and put it to military purpose.  This fosters an international environment of parity and equilibrium. And we should expect this to continue.

Is it too far of a stretch to infer that a super-secret CIA document on Stalin from 1949 looks somewhat similar to Wikipedia’s page on Stalin? Information that was once hard to collect is now easy to collect (and will grow easier). Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane has given way to Google Earth. Open-source information and photo-imagery intelligence is prevalent throughout the Internet. Digital banking is a reality. Cloud-computing, according to some futurists, will have the same impact as electricity generators had on the frozen water trade in the early twentieth-century.

The implication for counterintelligence is clear. The CIA should become more of a “De-Centralized” Intelligence Agency, deferring to private companies with expertise in nanotechnology, encryption codes, and particle physics. But this alone will not suffice. We may soon reach a tipping point when twentieth and even nineteenth-century intelligence tactics regain their operational relevance. When the grid goes down, or when anyone can get on the grid, it might be time to take stuff off the grid.  Counterintelligence might need to go back to its roots; when files were kept in file cabinets; when secrets weren’t encrypted or coded, but were kept in their most pure form -- in the mind and conscience of a loyal individual.