Although his work is very scientific, Gil Herrera has an almost mystical mission: to look into the future and then shape it , at the level of strange quantum physics and inextricable mathematical theorems, for the benefit of the United States.
Herrera is the new head of the Investigative Directorate of the US National Security Agency (NSA). The directorate, like the rest of the NSA, has a dual mission: to protect US systems and spy on the rest of the world. His budget is confidential, another secret among many, but the NSA is one of the largest espionage agencies in the world, and Herrera's leadership is the largest internal research and development department in the US intelligence community. management must find solutions to problems that are not yet real, in a world that does not yet exist .
In his first interview since his appointment, Herrera highlights the technology and threats his group will focus on. His priorities show how much the NSA's objectives are changing, balancing its work monitoring terrorist groups with an assessment of how quickly the geopolitical landscape has changed in recent years. Herrera explains why the rise of new technologies, both in the form of a threat and an opportunity, is the central issue facing his group.
Take the helm at a time when the agency is facing new challenges. The bipolar world of the Cold War belongs to the history books. America's rapid turn as a lone superpower is over. The new world is messier, defined by an emerging era of competition for power between nations like the United States, China, and Russia. Meanwhile, the NSA is still reeling from a series of leaks published nine years ago about global and domestic surveillance programs that unleashed a firestorm of criticism and calls for reform and changed the average American's perception of the NSA. The companies that had collaborated with the NSA walked away in shame and fury. It also changed the way it operates.
Herrera says, "We're at the point where we need to start focusing more on the bigger, more sophisticated adversaries that don't necessarily use commercial services. These adversaries have their own services and create their own technology. So, as the Directorate of Research, we must respond. We have to provide the technologies that allow us to analyze the enormous amounts of information we receive and help monitor the types of systems that are emerging as a result of the great competition for power."
The pace of technological change is accelerating and becoming less predictable .
"Any time there is that kind of change, it becomes complex," admits Herrera. "Each generation of technology presents its new challenges."
For example, Herrera's management has devoted significant resources to mastering quantum computing , the technology that has the potential to crack the encryption used to protect sensitive data in today's and tomorrow's digital world. Several powerful countries, companies and universities are investing in the task of building a quantum computer powerful enough to run exponentially faster than current computers.
"The great competition for power drives the agenda," emphasizes Herrera. “It changes the type of technology and the access that we need. Quantum technology and 5G are part of that .”
The directorate has been at the forefront of quantum computing research since 1995, right after the discovery of Shor's algorithm, which showed how quantum computers can factor numbers exponentially faster than conventional computers, which is exactly the kind of job needed to crack the cipher .
The traces of leadership now appear in the form of fundamental research advancing in the field and even within the most advanced computers built in giant technology companies. The much-publicized race to build the world's best quantum computer is proof of this: both Google and IBM use the same basic component in their machines to create quantum behavior, known as transmon qubits , which was invented under the sponsorship of this leadership. of the NSA . Historically, the NSA has been the single largest investor in academic research in quantum computing, Herrera says.
Herrera doesn't want to talk about the specifics that his address focuses on, but when asked about the challenges of spying in a world of rapid technical advance, he points to the emergence of 5G around the world; this technology brings its own new challenges to intelligence gathering, he explains. Monitoring 5G successfully requires a deep understanding of what makes it fundamentally different from its predecessors : higher speed, less variety, more distribution nodes, different data protocols.
Understanding what will happen in the world of tomorrow requires mastery of the elements that will define it.
the future story
The NSA's Directorate of Investigation comes from the Black Chamber, the first group of codebreakers in the United States, who were tasked with spying on the latest technologies, such as the telegraph. The group existed from 1919 to 1929 and decoded more than 10,000 messages from a dozen countries, according to James Bamford's 2001 book Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency . In addition to groundbreaking cryptanalytic work, the group was successful with the help of surveillance from American companies like Western Union, which could provide new American spies with sensitive communications for examination .
The Black Chamber was shut down amid a scandal when US Secretary of State Henry Stimson discovered that the group was spying on both American allies and enemies . The incident foreshadowed the 1975 Church Committee, which investigated surveillance abuses by US intelligence agencies, and the 2013 Snowden leaks, which exposed massive electronic surveillance capabilities that triggered a global backlash.
Barely eight months after the closure of the Black Chamber, facing the prospect of a crippled espionage capability in the increasingly unstable world of the 1930s, the US reformed that effort with the Army's Signals Intelligence Service. One of the three people who worked with the old records of the Black Chamber, one of the founders of the SIS, which according to Bamford was kept secret from the US State Department, was the mathematician Solomon Kullback.
Kullback was instrumental in cracking Japanese and German codes before and during World War II, later heading the research and development department of the newly formed National Security Agency. Within a year, that department became the directorate as we know it today: a separate space for research that is uninterrupted by the daily work of the agency .
"It's important to have a research organization, even if it's mission-driven, to think beyond a crisis," Herrera says, though he adds that management dedicates a portion of its work to the "crisis of the day." It has a program called 'scientists on call' , which allows NSA mission analysts (who face technical challenges while analyzing information) to request help via email to access hundreds of scientists.
But most of management's job is to imagine technologies that are several generations ahead of what we have today. It functions almost like a small elite technical university, organized around five academic departments (Mathematics, Physics, Cybersecurity, Computer Science and Electrical Engineering), each with between 100 and 200 people.
The Cybersecurity department defends the national security of the federal government and the country's military-industrial base. It is the highest level department, and deliberately so. In the last five years, the NSA, which previously kept to the shadows, has become more transparent and active in cybersecurity . It has launched public notices and investigative projects that would previously have been anathema to an organization whose existence was not even acknowledged until 20 years after its founding.
Today, the NSA's research products, such as Ghidra, the free and sophisticated reverse engineering tool that aids in the technical dissection of hacking tools and other software, are popular, trusted, and used around the world. world . They serve as powerful cybersecurity, recruiting, and PR tools all in one.
The Physics department, which Herrera had headed, runs dozens of labs that do most of the work in quantum information science, but it has a much broader remit than that. As advances in raw computing power threaten to slow and halt 60 years of predictably rapid computing growth, your physicists are exploring new materials and novel computing architectures to propel the next generation of computing into a less predictable future—exactly the kind of task that management had when it was launched.
Meanwhile, the Electrical Engineering department has been taking a hard look at the physics and engineering of telecommunications networks ever since the advent of the internet . In addition to 5G-related issues, it also addresses all facets of the digital world, from undersea cables to satellite communications.
Some prospects on the horizon don't fit very well in any particular department. The computer science department's artificial intelligence and machine learning work, for example, encompasses cybersecurity missions and data analysis work with mathematicians.
Herrera raises several times the possibility that the management needs to develop greater capabilities and understanding of rapidly advancing fields such as synthetic biology . The NSA is not alone in this regard: Chinese military leaders have referred to biotechnology as a national defense priority.
The person in charge highlights: " Much of the competition in the world is no longer military . Military rivalry is accelerating, but there is also diffusion of other technologies, such as synthetic biology, which are frankly alarming. The role of research is to help NSA to understand what the impact of those technologies will be. I don't know how much we'll really get involved, but these are the areas that we have to watch."
Finally, the Mathematics department, the oldest, is unique. Herrera describes mathematics as the main defining job of directing. The NSA is the largest employer of mathematicians in the country, and this Directorate has some of the best. Virtually every other department suffers from having to compete with tech companies and the high salaries available in the private sector. The math department doesn't have that problem, according to Herrera. Silicon Valley tends to value software developers more than mathematicians.
The Mathematics department, often in conjunction with the Computer Science department, helps tackle one of the NSA's most exciting problems: big data . Despite societal criticism of mass surveillance, the NSA faces the challenge of collecting such extreme amounts of data that, in addition to legal and ethical issues , it can be nearly impossible to sift through it all to find everything of value. The NSA regards that "great access and collection" it talks about internally as an achievement but also with its own set of problems. The field of data science aims to solve them.
"Everyone thinks their data is the messiest in the world, and maybe it's because it's collected from people who don't want us to have it, honestly ," admitted Herrera's predecessor at the NSA, computer scientist Deborah Frincke, during a conference that took place in 2017 at Stanford University (USA). "The adversary does not speak clearly in English with pleasant statements into a microphone, and if we cannot understand you, please send us a clearer statement."
One of the eternal tasks of management remains to make sense of the huge amounts of obscure data, often stolen, in hundreds of languages and even in the most technical formats.
In the digital age, one of the main objectives of espionage would be the ability to decode important data that is currently protected by strong encryption. That is why the mathematicians and computer scientists of the Research Directorate design and decipher the cryptographic algorithms for some of the most sensitive systems in the world .
Creating and breaking codes is the foundation of the management's work because when the NSA looks to the future, what it sees is an increasingly digital world filled with data. His ability to protect it and also watch over it will help define the rivalry between the great powers for a long time to come .
"In the future, superpowers will be created or destroyed based on the strength of their cryptanalytic programs," a 2007 NSA document explained. "It's the price of admission for the US to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace ."
"The Research Directorate exists to make this mission possible," concludes Herrera. "From atoms to systems, we do research with the mission in mind."