Opinion | The C.I.A.’s Top Technologist Is Uncomfortable With Facebook

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(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” [SPY MUSIC] You know how basically in every spy movie, there’s a scene where the hero retreats to an underground lair, and the nerdy scientist shows off their latest gadget, like a flute that turns into a rifle or exploding gum.

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Now watch very carefully. An ordinary tin of talcum powder. Inside, a tear gas cartridge that goes in the case —

kara swisher

My guest today is that scientist. Dawn Meyerriecks is the CIA’s top technologist. If you watch the Bond movies, she’s basically the head of Q Branch. Meyerriecks oversees the CIA’s secretive Directorate of Science and Technology, also known as DS&T. Her department makes the disguises and tools every intel officer needs to spy for America’s interests. But wigs and fake mustaches can only get you so far these days. Artificial intelligence and facial recognition make it almost impossible for a case officer to move around unnoticed. And practically everyone leaves a digital footprint now. So how is Meyerriecks making sure our spy gear outpaces China’s? How is the CIA working with private companies to protect U.S. interests? And why the heck hasn’t the CIA recruited me yet? Dawn Meyerriecks, welcome to “Sway.”

dawn meyerriecks

Thanks, Kara. It’s great to be here.

kara swisher

So do I call you Agent Meyerriecks? How are you addressed, or director?

dawn meyerriecks

No, Dawn sounds good.

kara swisher

OK, Dawn. OK, sounds good. I’d rather call you by some fancy name. But that’s OK. So let’s talk about what DS&T is. There are five directors within the CIA. And you lead one of them, the Directorate of Science and Technology. So would you just explain what that is?

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, sure. So what we’re responsible for, there are two directorates that are technical. One is basically anything that’s virtual. So if it has no physical manifestation, it’s cyber and the things that you would expect.

kara swisher

That’s the Directorate of Digital Innovation.

dawn meyerriecks

Exactly.

kara swisher

OK, it’s newest. It’s the newest one.

dawn meyerriecks

It’s the newest one. That’s right. And then there is the DS&T, which has been around basically for 57 years. And we do everything that has either a physical manifestation or a physical virtual manifestation, so we’re the crossover. So, scientists, engineers, makeup artists. So it’s a multidisciplinary, innovative, creative place to work.

kara swisher

So it’s like a mechanical engineering and computer engineering together.

dawn meyerriecks

Right, plus sculptors, plus forgers, plus — I mean, we are STEAM, not STEM. And I like that because it’s got the artist, architectural kind of bent as well. Because we’re that convergence of hardware, software, and soft darts, I’ll say, as well, right? Because there’s a big piece of EQ that comes with dealing with —

kara swisher

With human intelligence.

dawn meyerriecks

That’s exactly right, yep.

kara swisher

So why did they split them apart?

dawn meyerriecks

I was around when DDI was created. And the real point was there was not enough understanding kind of across the work force of the implications of cyber and all of the services that were being offered. One of the things that the organization does, they encourage folks not to have much of a virtual presence. And what that resulted in is a lot of our folks who had been here for a while had no idea how much digital dust was being created, how much of a signature it was not to have a digital persona.

kara swisher

Like if you’re not using Facebook or Instagram and things like that.

dawn meyerriecks

Particularly my business, right? It’s like, we had these long conversations about, is that actually a tell? If you have no digital footprint, who are you?

kara swisher

Right, that’s the Directorate of Digital Innovation. Yours is more like the Q Branch. How do you look at that? Because there’s so much fictional stuff around people like you.

dawn meyerriecks

Right. Right, so yeah, it’s a bit of Q. So if you think about the old James Bond — I guess that’s pretty dated at this point — we’re more like Ethan Hunt, which is also a technical collection, and it’s a team sport.

kara swisher

Right, for those who don’t know, Ethan Hunt is from “Mission: Impossible.” And that’s played by Tom Cruise.

dawn meyerriecks

Right, so we enable our agents to operate clandestinely, but we’re the collector of last resort. So if you need to know something about an area that we don’t have good access to, that we need to inform policymakers about what’s going on, for example, then we also do technical collection and we’ll go, again, to extreme lengths to get into places where people don’t expect us to be in order to do technical collection.

kara swisher

So when you say technical collection, that could be anything from someone operating a drone to what? That you can talk about.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, so we operate in all domains. You might think about it and one of the things I would offer as an example is if we want to know air quality, if we want to know stream quality, then the way to get that information is to actually be operating in that domain. So we have a variety of platforms — I’d love you to come see our museum.

kara swisher

I love spy museums.

dawn meyerriecks

We have fish there. Oh, yeah, and dragonflies and all sorts of things that we use in order to put technical collection in place to monitor whatever we need to.

kara swisher

Yeah, so when you’re talking about all these things, like, for example, with the dragonflies, you are talking about unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance, correct?

dawn meyerriecks

Well, it’s really, we do a lot more of sensors, payload kinds of deliveries. So, yes, we have some fair amount of expertise in unmanned vehicles I’ll say independent of the domain that they operate in because it’s really important to us.

kara swisher

All right, so the directorate has had a range of projects over the years. And I think people are sort of surprised. I did know of project MK Ultra, which began in the 1950s. It was curtailed. It was the unsuccessful experiments with mind control. Project Acoustic Kitty, which embedded eavesdropping devices inside a live cat.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, you can imagine how well that would have gone because, of course, cats follow directions so well.

kara swisher

Yeah, exactly. An early handheld text messaging system called Buster and Project Oxcart which was building a secret stealth jet, which I know the Defense Department also has done. Project Azorian, which was secretly plucking a sunken Soviet sub from the ocean by building another ship. And then Project Corona, which was the satellite program. It was taking pictures of the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. So talk a little bit about this range. This is just what anybody thinks of, right? It’s as if it’s like an MIT Media Lab, in a lot of ways.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, I think that’s actually probably a really good analogy. Yeah, so if a policymaker would like to know, hey, is there effluent in this stream that would indicate that somebody is doing something that doesn’t comport with our values, for example, and nobody can figure out how to get there, those are the problems we like. And we bring together teams to say, OK, so let’s brainstorm about how we would be able to get that kind of information for policymakers, which is why it’s important to be all domain because sometimes it’s airborne. Sometimes it’s maritime. Sometimes it’s terrestrial. And you’ve got to have the expertise to do all of those things.

kara swisher

And then the directorate obviously was very involved in inventing lithium ion batteries that we use today. This would be like a dragonfly that you would fly, a small one. I’ve seen there’s fictional movies again where a dragonfly goes into a terrorist thing and just flies around. And then someone hits it because they think it’s not a mechanical thing.

dawn meyerriecks

Actually, we have a fish that we built because we were trying to check out what effluent we were able to detect in a stream. So, again, it was a kind of a hard place to get to.

kara swisher

This was, say, if someone was doing nuclear work?

dawn meyerriecks

For example, or chem bio or anything where you really want to see if there’s being something put into the water that would indicate that they’re not collaborating in a treaty or doing something that we would find objectionable from a values perspective.

kara swisher

I think the expression is trust, but verify, I believe.

dawn meyerriecks

Exactly.

kara swisher

So the people in this branch in Bond films, for example, don’t go out in the field. They just make things. And they hand over gadgets, and that’s it. There’s a whole scene. They have to have it in every movie. Do DS&T officers go out in the field or create things for field agents?

dawn meyerriecks

Both. We actually send our technical officers out to do operations. Some of it is just because of the technical expertise that we couldn’t train somebody else to do some of the things that we do, so they have to actually be able to practice the same tradecraft as our ops officers do in terms of operating clandestinely. When you can actually take your idea to the field, and see that it’s working, that’s why most of us are here.

kara swisher

DS&T, what is it working on today? I know a lot of it’s classified and what you can’t discuss, so can you give the technologies you have your eye on right now?

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, so we actually have an unclassified problem set that we put out there because In-Q-Tel is one of the organizations that we work very closely with.

kara swisher

In-Q-Tel, explain who that is.

dawn meyerriecks

In-Q-Tel is sort of —

kara swisher

It’s a VC.

dawn meyerriecks

— a venture capitalist early, angel through round A kinds of investments, where they scan the horizon for us for things that are not just good science or technology, but things that are about to emerge into a market so that we can leverage that and so that we can team with them to, in some cases, expand a problem set that doesn’t take them off their market, but makes them more applicable to other parts of a market, for example.

kara swisher

It’s essentially the venture capitalists for the CIA, is what it is.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah.

kara swisher

And there’s been others. There’s a Defense Department one.

dawn meyerriecks

Right, and we work with IARPA. We do a lot of work with DARPA. So, and we do a lot of work with industry, frankly. This is why it’s important for us to have an unclassified problem set. So, we care about batteries a lot. You can imagine that. We have a long history of, if you’re going to put something that looks like a dragonfly with a sensor on it, then you care a lot about batteries or small cameras. That’s something that we’re very interested in. Of course, bio is something that we’re very interested in, given everything that’s been going on recently. AIML is something that we’re very interested in.

kara swisher

Explain that — AI Machine Learning.

dawn meyerriecks

Machine Learning, that’s right. Because of the information that we collect, we don’t want to have to have operators go through that by hand. We want there to be automated tipping and cueing, for example, because if they’re running on a battery, we don’t want them sitting there active all the time. So we want to do tipping and cueing to say, hey, there’s something interesting here. Maybe now would be the time to wake up and take a picture or take a sample and then send it back to us. So those are the kinds of things. And if you saw my list, you would not be surprised.

kara swisher

We’re hearing about drone advances, which is, I think, a critical part now, as this has been a bigger and bigger part. Lockheed Martin has a MORFIUS drone that it says can blast hostile drones with high-powered microwaves to disable them. Where is your drone technology? You do work with Lockheed Martin and other companies, correct?

dawn meyerriecks

We do, we do. I like to think we’re state of the art. And we’ve had a long history of that. I mean, you talked about the Oxcart, which then led to the SR-71, right? Stealthy aircraft that can go speed of sound. We have a lot of partnerships with DoD.

kara swisher

So what is the state of the art in drones?

dawn meyerriecks

[LAUGHS] Long distance autonomy, small — yeah, if there is a way that we can press forward in any particular place, then we’re going to try and be doing that pretty much continuously. Payload deliveries, there’s all sorts of things that —

kara swisher

That you would bring somewhere into a group. Say there was a group of CIA agents somewhere, bringing them something.

dawn meyerriecks

Yep.

kara swisher

And dropping off. Now this is at the same time when there’s huge pushes in commercial. How does that impact you all?

dawn meyerriecks

So this is where In-Q-Tel and others are really, really important to us, right? Because if you look at R&D budgets, industry does a lot more R&D investment than we do at this point. So we leverage the heck out of In-Q-Tel and other relationships like that in order to understand what’s going on and incorporate other people’s good ideas. There’s no pride of authorship here, as long as we get it done, yeah.

kara swisher

So when you talk about the idea of the investments not being made by government, it used to be the government had all the funding money that would develop things, including the internet. Do you look across the private spectrum in watching what people are making?

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, that’s absolutely what we do. And we also see people out to understand what’s going on. And if we continue along the lines with drones, the commercial industry is much more vibrant in terms of an investment perspective than government is at this point, right? And so the reality is if we want to know what’s going on, we got to be involved in those discussions and got to be part of where the market is. So, we’re big into externships.

kara swisher

Which is bringing expertise in, in a particular area or going outwards to one of these companies to work on these things.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, for example, the story I love to tell is, we recruit people. We spot assess and recruit. I know that will make people nervous, but with particular expertise, right? Like, if we need a puppeteer, we don’t grow puppeteers, right? So we’re going to have to go find a puppeteer.

kara swisher

But the CIA is hiring puppeteers? What do you need a puppeteer for? I’m sorry. I’m not leaving that one back on the road back there.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, so if you want somebody to disappear from a car, but not have it evident, then you better have a pretty good replacement.

kara swisher

Oh. Why would you want that? I’m sorry. I should have gone into this business. But you have a puppet in a car. Oh, I see, like a dummy. Like a dummy there?

dawn meyerriecks

Maybe.

kara swisher

Maybe, could be. I mean, OK, all right, OK. Would you care to keep going on that one?

dawn meyerriecks

Probably not.

kara swisher

What, do you get puppeteers from Disney? Where does one find puppeteers these days?

dawn meyerriecks

Hollywood —

kara swisher

Hollywood.

dawn meyerriecks

— Disney, yep, exactly, right. Makeup artists, you can think about that, right? We have people that do disguises, so yeah, that’s when I say we do mascara to space.

kara swisher

How do you compete for the best and the brightest when you know talent can easily go to Silicon Valley or Hollywood or any of these places where it’s significantly more lucrative?

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, so I think the current generations are much more service oriented. So if I can bring them in, get them kind of caught on our mission, and they go out and make money, I’ll take them back. Right? And so you can do a balance. And you don’t have to make a choice. You’re not deciding I’m going to do this forever when you join us. And we get the benefit of the latest skills and the excitement. And we hold on to most of the people that we bring in. Do we lose our creatives? Absolutely we do, but every high tech company loses their creatives at some point.

kara swisher

It used to be spies were heroes. And you can have your opinions about Edward Snowden and what he did. I have both issues, and I also was worried about some of the things he revealed. With all this data in the hands of government, how do you all as government agencies push back against that?

dawn meyerriecks

We have very strict rules, for example, about how long we can retain things that are unexamined. So we can’t just keep data around forever and ever, kind of filling up our servers, right? I only need the stuff that’s important from — you know — and normally, it’s very perishable, right? So there’s a lot of culling that goes on pretty much continuously and grooming. There are times when it turns out that we probably shouldn’t have groomed something out but we do. And so —

kara swisher

Grooming out — explain what that is.

dawn meyerriecks

So if something, for example, hasn’t been touched in five years, if there’s a data set that we’ve had that nobody has looked at for five years, then the rules of engagement are that we get rid of it, right? And we have very strict rules about collection on US persons or people that are under USP protection.

kara swisher

Uh-huh. There’s two things there. One is that the data sets, people are doubting the information. And the second part is the wrong analysis from the data that you collect.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, so there’s two pieces of that. Now I’ll quote one of my favorite directors that used to say, we have to keep secrets, but we don’t need to be mysterious. And I think part of what you’re poking at here is where we do need to keep secrets because lives are at stake. It’s very, very difficult for us to have a public discourse about why it is that we can’t publish that kind of information. And I don’t think we’re going to ever answer to 100% of the population’s satisfaction that we are very, very good at culling this information. But I would say that we have very high standards that we hold ourselves to. There’s a whole FISA process that we participate in with NSA generally. And my personal experience inside the organization is that when we find things that shouldn’t be there, we generally go back to the source and make sure that it gets fixed so that it doesn’t happen again.

kara swisher

Well, I think one of the great damages was the Edward Snowden revelations really did break the relationship between tech and government.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah.

kara swisher

Is that repaired?

dawn meyerriecks

I would say it’s spotty. I think there are lots of people that are particularly — and probably it’s the decay time since it happened. But also there are just folks with different values out there that it’s really important that we have the best possible information on. So it’s uneven. There are people that will never work with us kind of on the basis that we’re not trustworthy. And there are others that get us and what we’re trying to do and are patriots and want to be able to help with that mission. So I don’t think we’ve totally recovered. But I also think it’s a reasonable check and balance to have these kinds of conversations.

kara swisher

It’s funny, you use the word “patriots” for those who cooperated with you. But I think I remember when that Snowden thing happened, they were very upset, people in Silicon Valley at certain companies, and others, not so much.

dawn meyerriecks

And I view it as this is a trust that we have with the American public that we’re going to get what we need to do our jobs and no more. And I think that every time we have a Snowden-like incident, we undermine that trust.

kara swisher

It’s not just government. There’s a lot of power in the hands of a few big tech companies. Does that worry you from a national security standpoint, how much data these companies have?

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, that’s a really good question. And I think the answer is it depends. It depends on the standards to which they hold themselves. And we have these very conversations. We talk about the ethos of intelligence and what our responsibilities are, but also to help inform them in terms of everybody is so sick of I think the big bad China thing, right? You go to a CIO conference. That’s all they talk about. But when we have more specific information, what’s our responsibility vis a vis commercial entities? And those are all conversations that we’re having pretty much continuously.

kara swisher

But their amount of data that they have, does it worry people in government? The government look at a Facebook or a Google and now Amazon. Is that a national security problem?

dawn meyerriecks

I don’t think we think about it that way. I think I worry about it more just in terms of what they’re aggregating on me.

kara swisher

Uh-huh, so you have digital dust.

dawn meyerriecks

I do have a ton of digital dust.

kara swisher

Yeah, OK.

dawn meyerriecks

And if you think about what our folks do, right, if they’re trying to do a clandestine operation, the specificity, how fast they can tell where you are if you’re emitting anything, means that our job just got a lot harder. Five years ago, when I went to England, it would take three days for my ads to catch up with the fact that I wasn’t in the U.S anymore. I get off the airplane now, and my phone comes on, I’m getting ads that are appropriate for the fact that I’m in London. From a consumer perspective, it’s like, wow, this is really, really uncomfortable, right?

kara swisher

So the CIA’s top technologist is uncomfortable with Facebook, I guess.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah. Yeah, I am. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Space Force General John Raymond, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Dawn Meyerriecks after the break.

So in terms of innovation, there was a time when the most state of the art equipment and computers were at the NSA and some other agencies. Have commercial technologies surpassed the CIA and other agencies as being the most cutting edge? Do you assess that, having worked in both places?

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, I think in areas, it has, but areas that we don’t think of differentiators because I think it’s common knowledge that we have a very long standing relationship with Amazon for cloud services.

kara swisher

Yes, from what I understand, someone who probably shouldn’t have said so told me you have a separate cloud service.

dawn meyerriecks

We host it. It’s hosted in our facility. But it’s exactly the same service, right? And this is where we have a great relationship with the company because if we see, for example, something that’s a threat, then we feed that back, or they discover it, more likely, because they actually operate it, and then that raises the water level for everybody who’s got their cloud services. There’s nothing spooky about it.

kara swisher

But your cloud service is protected in a certain area. And that lets your agents use apps, right? Because you couldn’t use — you couldn’t just suddenly install Instagram on CIA’s phones.

dawn meyerriecks

Well, that — yeah, that’s — [LAUGHS] there’s still a process to bring things into our infrastructure, right? But I’ll say that Amazon is a part of that process because they are responsible for the security services that they offer in the cloud services that we run on. And this is where I think it’s this great symbiotic relationship because we have really good intelligence with respect to the kinds of threats that we should be aware of. And that feeds right back into their commercial service because we want to run the same commercial base line as they do.

kara swisher

Right, I see. So let’s talk about how the CIA and DS&T then in particular works with the private sector. How does the CIA work with private companies to develop spying tools? Do they do that, too? Let me just say these companies that you’re working with, Lockheed Martin.

dawn meyerriecks

So there are companies that are more than happy to do business with us, kind of straight stick, you write a contract, we will deliver things. And a lot of them are the typical Beltway suppliers. There are others that will offer you the service that we offer commercially, and that’s it, nothing beyond that. And then there are, of course, the folks that will do special things for us, right, that help us build these very sophisticated technical collectors, for example, or that help us build communications devices that we don’t want to be able to be detected easily for uses kind of across the surface of the planet.

kara swisher

Do you work with Google?

dawn meyerriecks

I’m not aware that we have — I think that we’re in the middle of a procurement, I’ll say, for additional cloud services, which I really can’t talk about because of procurement regs. So I don’t know that we have any sort of contractual relationship with Google right now.

kara swisher

So the reason I’m asking is Google bought CIA-funded satellite imaging software — actually, my ex-wife did it — that eventually became Google Earth. It’s a little like what happens with DARPA, which is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The government pilot certain technologies in the private sector can tinker with them and make billions of dollars. How do you guys look at that? With the internet, with everything else, with all these things, is that you pilot technologies and then don’t benefit.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, so that’s one of the reasons we put together CIA Labs because we really are creative. Touch screen technology, we did some early work in that, as you might imagine. So there’s a lot of patentable ideas that come out of the brainstorming that we do. And I wanted our employees to be able to get some recognition for that. So we can bring this new idea. The company wasn’t thinking about that particular application. And all of a sudden, it’s like, oh, yeah, we could easily add a couple of features and service that market as well. So we’re really good at creating, I’ll say, new markets. We’re trying to actually create an innovation ecosystem that our folks can operate in throughout their career so that they don’t have to make a choice about, can I bring my idea to market, or can I do service? I think that’s a Faustian bargain that we shouldn’t put them into if we can avoid it.

kara swisher

How do you convince people when you’re working with the companies when there’s pressure on these companies from their employees who are very powerful, as you know, to not work with the government, especially the CIA, which people have every good reason to be distrustful.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, I mean, when I came back to the intelligence community, people dropped me because they felt like they couldn’t be my friend anymore.

kara swisher

Let’s get into that for a second. So you worked at AOL. You oversaw the launch of AOL Instant Messenger. You were the vice president of product technology. You were working for the government, and then you worked for AOL. Is that correct? And then —

dawn meyerriecks

Yes.

kara swisher

— back to the government. Could you explain to people how that happened?

dawn meyerriecks

Sure. So I did the first ever enterprise buy of software when I worked for the government. I was in DoD at the time. And that was back in the day. We were looking for certificates because it was the Wild West on the web. And we wanted to make sure that people weren’t accessing websites that they shouldn’t be that held information that we wanted to protect. It was back when everybody kind of went, oh, people might actually use the architecture plans to do something bad, right? And so, we did the Netscape procurement. And it was the biggest buy we’d ever done. And I think it was on the order of $12 million at the time. That’s small by today’s standards. So I called AOL and said I want to meet the person who is going to run the Netscape product line. And he came in and I’m sure — David Gang.

kara swisher

Yes, of course. Oh, dear.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, and he came in. And I said, I want to make sure that I just didn’t waste $12 million of taxpayer money because you’re not known as a product company. And so we had this fabulous conversation. I think David appreciated it. He looked at me and said, I’ve never met a government person like you. And I said, well, that’s great because I’ve never met an AOL principal before. And we proceeded to have this wonderful conversation. He asked me about IM. I didn’t actually launch AIM. That was when David was in charge of product technology. He asked me if I thought it had legs, and I was like, oh, absolutely. And it was when it was the second Gulf and we were watching people drive over intersections that we had just seen people in likely planting IEDs, right?

kara swisher

Right, these are bombs, yeah.

dawn meyerriecks

And so I said, I’m so interested in this. Could we secure AIM —

kara swisher

AOL Instant Messenger.

dawn meyerriecks

— and use it to get messages, short messages to the guys downstream so that they’re not driving over these intersections?

kara swisher

So this is deploying instant messages for troops that are there to avoid bombs on roads.

dawn meyerriecks

Yep, and I eventually called him one day and said, OK, I think I’m ready for an interview.

kara swisher

So you went into the private sector and worked for many years. And then you went back. Why did you do that? You could have continued, Google or wherever, on those places and you took a big pay cut.

dawn meyerriecks

I did. I had other offers that were much more lucrative. But when I got the call to come back into service, it was really an easy trade to make. And the juice of knowing that 18-year-olds were not going to be maimed or killed was so much more gratifying than a quarterly earnings call that it was a good trade for me.

kara swisher

So you talk about patriotism. You have other countries like China, which I think, when I talk to military people, when I talk to FBI people, everybody knows about the power of China. And this is the best example, the powerful surveillance technology that government can have. So where are their capabilities?

dawn meyerriecks

They have a lot of good capability. They’ve made long term investments. They are writing checks like crazy to bring the best and the brightest in. And we’re having conversations with folks about make sure you think through the implications of free labor or that will just fund any research that you want to do. I mean, there are clear implications to that. And people need to be thoughtful about that. And the thing that I say is that I think the military industrial complex has created a bubble around industry and around academics here for the last 70 years. And all of a sudden, that bubble’s gone. So this is a responsibility of all of us. We have to be thoughtful. If somebody offers you something for nothing, wouldn’t you ask a question?

kara swisher

Right.

dawn meyerriecks

Right? Now, you talked about big data and the implications there. And maybe we’re not doing so well as a people, but these are the conversations we absolutely need to have.

kara swisher

Uh-huh. Is there enough worry about what’s happening? Because a lot of warfare is going to be military. Look, SolarWinds just happened. There’s all kinds of things. And it’s not even very clear who is our enemy at this point.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, so this goes back to, I think all of us own this. It’s just we all have to step into this. And boards need to step into this. CEOs need to step into this. University presidents need to step into this. This is all of our responsibility, which is why we’re interested in having conversations, not big, spooky, do something weird for us, but like, hey, come now, let us reason together, right? Here’s what we know. Here’s what you know. You go to a CIOs conference. There’s nothing you can tell them that they would be stunned by, right? We all need to step into this.

kara swisher

OK, but there’s also a theory that a few years ago, staffers at the U.S. embassy in Havana were victims of an acoustic attack. Now this is something that would be yours, some kind of supersonic ray gun that might give people brain injuries. Do you also have a supersonic ray gun?

dawn meyerriecks

[LAUGHS] No, we don’t have a supersonic ray gun. Sorry. Yeah, so, look, there’s a lot of data out there. And we are culling through that. And as you might have heard, my new director has made this a big priority for us, not just for our officers who have been impacted, but for U.S. citizens that are at risk potentially across the planet. But if you think about this, this is kind of like cyber. And even if you know, how do you attribute?

kara swisher

Right, because there’s also a theory that the headaches were caused by mosquito gas or something else. There’s all kinds of theories of what happened. But when these things happen, you have to have both an offensive and a defensive response. You think about Stuxnet. That was offense. And of course, it’s come to haunt us as a defense in terms of people getting access to these kind of things. Is that — you’re going to see more of things like that? Because that was a physical and a computer thing, which is right in your wheelhouse.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah.

kara swisher

You know, just shutting down infrastructure.

dawn meyerriecks

We love operating in the gaps. And I’ll give a dated example. But in the old days, the phone company paid people based on how many phone lines, right, they sold or the equivalent of phone lines. And then when wireless came around, and I actually did a panel on this, they were still translating wireless connections to phone lines because that’s the only way they could think about the problem, right? And so that obviously was an area where you could operate in that gap because they weren’t thinking about it that way, right? They were thinking like, oh, this is just more of these, right? So this physical virtual gap is, I’ll just say, one of our sweet spots in terms of the future. And I think it’s only going to become more so.

kara swisher

And how vulnerable — and not just our country, but other countries in terms of infrastructure, because that’s where you would — there’s the shutting down of the water systems — everything. Is that something you’re going to see more of? And this is something you would be working on, right, how to shut down a country’s electrical grid.

dawn meyerriecks

Well, I hope we don’t see more of it, but this is why I’m so passionate about this public-private partnership that I keep talking about. Because we need to have the conversations that inform the CEO or the provost or whoever about what the specific threat vectors are that we’re seeing, and not generically, the CCP is a bad thing. And that’s the relationships that we’re trying to build out in a way that everyone’s comfortable, right? So that we protect our valuable assets where we maybe getting really, really good insights, while, at the same time, sharing the information that we need to so that as we ask people to step into these gaps, that they are actually well enough informed that they can have that conversation with their board to make the investments that they need to in order to protect those.

kara swisher

So the U.S. forces are pulling out of Afghanistan in the coming months. Do we need more surveillance like drones of that country to ensure it doesn’t reform as a terrorist base? Is that critically important to do without people on the ground?

dawn meyerriecks

So I would expect that there would be more requirements for the kinds of technical collection that I talked about, where we’re uniquely qualified. That would definitely fall into the wheelhouse of things that they would turn to us to take a look at.

kara swisher

Do you imagine old-fashioned human intelligence spying has gone to style then? Do we need field officers when we have AI, drones, facial recognition?

dawn meyerriecks

I have to say that my experience is that a really good humint asset, a really good human being who’s in the right place with insight is still worth their weight in gold and then some, right? Because they have insights that you can’t get just by going through a bunch of data, right? There’s a lot of rhetoric. And you have to sort out what somebody is really willing to do versus what they may say publicly or what the people around them may say. And that’s where I think I see that human intelligence makes a huge difference in terms of assessing and separating the rhetoric from the real intent.

kara swisher

But human intelligence has a problem now because of all these technologies — facial recognition, biometric scans. You can forge a passport. They have gait recognition. You could put on the mask. But they can see through it. They can see through iris scans. How do you evade the problem of a person having digital fingerprints, irises, gait? People are a problem.

dawn meyerriecks

Yeah, so I mean, the pat answer is very carefully and obviously I can’t talk about what we do. Currently, I’ll just say that it’s a lot of orchestration. We have a variety of techniques that we use that is situationally dependent, locale dependent. So we have a bunch of tools in the toolbox. And we also have very smart officers who figure out what is appropriate for the particular circumstance that they’re in. And we do a fair amount of overwatch so that we can watch the dashboard, so to speak, and see if somebody looks like they’re in trouble from these collection capabilities that exist on such a huge scale.

kara swisher

But can anyone not be tracked now as a person?

dawn meyerriecks

We still manage to do operations today.

kara swisher

OK, you have a new CIA director. Bill Burns took over from Gina Haspel, who I think was doing God’s work at some point, in terms of talking about technical forms of collection are vital and good human sources. And it was exciting to see a woman run the CIA, also you running it.

dawn meyerriecks

Well, thanks. There’s actually five of us that are deputy directors.

kara swisher

So it could have been me.

dawn meyerriecks

Could have been.

kara swisher

Yeah, I would have been the sneaky one who was doing the bad things. So with Bill Burns and it’s been a tough time for the CIA and all the intelligence agencies during the Trump administration. He’s a diplomat by training, not a spy. What do you think of the approach that the Biden administration has to espionage?

dawn meyerriecks

So far as I can tell, the things — again, I talked about the impact of the kinds of technical collection that we do and the human piece of it. They’re differentiators, right? We don’t do something if we don’t think it makes a difference to a bottom line assessment. And so I think they are very interested. From what I can tell, they’re avid consumers of what we produce and for us continuing to do the sorts of things that we have been doing in the past and that hopefully, we’ll continue to do in the future.

kara swisher

Now the new Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, before she took the office at DNI, one of her last acts was to co-chair the Technology and Intelligence Task Force at CSIS. The final report of her task force came out in January. One of the conclusions was the primary obstacle to intelligence innovation is not technology, it is culture. What do you think about that?

dawn meyerriecks

So I was actually part of the team that she interviewed on that. Fortunately, I got to work with Avril and the Obama administration. And she’s fantastic. I think that things have changed since she’s come back— or while she was out of the community. I think we raised the digital acumen enough that we certainly understand that we have to take risks and that we have to move at the speed of business. And that’s not something that government is generally known for.

kara swisher

No.

dawn meyerriecks

But this set of tools, for example, that I talked about, when I first came to the agency, we started developing tools in anticipation of the rest of the agency, figuring out that we had to do things differently. And so we’ve got a pretty robust toolbox at this point. And I have to say that they’re pulling it from us faster than we can invent it.

kara swisher

So my very last question, what would your dream spy tool be then if you could pick anything.? Mine would be an invisibility cloak, but.

dawn meyerriecks

I was going to say the same thing. I think that’s actually — but I will say that our whole job is to make people believe that there is an invisibility cloak.

kara swisher

Is there?

dawn meyerriecks

No, it’s hard work. It’s hard technology.

kara swisher

Don’t say no. Say, uh, well —

dawn meyerriecks

[LAUGHS]

kara swisher

I’m so sorry I’m not in the CIA, I have to say.

dawn meyerriecks

Oh, come over.

kara swisher

I really am.

dawn meyerriecks

Maybe we can recruit you.

kara swisher

Maybe I am one.

dawn meyerriecks

That’s right. How do we know?

kara swisher

That would be the longest con in history for Kara Swisher, right in the middle of everything.

dawn meyerriecks

Done, we’ll sign you up.

kara swisher

All right, thank you so much, Dawn. I really appreciate it.

dawn meyerriecks

Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

Sway is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen; edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman; with original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Erick Gomez; and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you — should you choose to accept it — download any podcast app and search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening. This podcast will self-destruct in five seconds.

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