Earlier this year the Central Intelligence Agency made a leap into the 21st century after it launched the first new directorate in more than 50 years. Dubbed the Directorate of Digital Innovation it was designed to expand the spy agency’s cyber-espionage efforts and to further increase the agency’s role in fighting hackers.
CIA Director John Brennan called the move “a key milestone,” but it really highlights the fact that the 68 year old agency is adjusting to the changing times where cyber warfare is seen as a growing threat to national security. The directorate will call for greater use of technology for cyber security and further enhance – rather than replace – the capabilities of operatives on the ground.
“The human source has always been the most valuable resource,” said former CIA field agent Christopher Burgess, CEO of Prevendra, a firm specializing in privacy and intelligence. “During my 31 years at the CIA, of which 22 was in the field, I found that technology was a wonder tool, but it provided a great deal of information without context.”
The new directorate will thus help see a greater convergence of the traditional HUMINT or “Human Intelligence,” which has been intelligence gathered by means of interpersonal contact, and SIGINT (signals intelligence), IMINT (imagery intelligence) and MASINT (measurement and signature intelligence). Cyber has already been a tool in the CIA’s arsenal but under this new directorate it will be greatly expanded.
The timing of this new program also comes as President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced last month a “common understanding” on reducing economic cyber espionage, yet left the door open for other types of cyber spying.
“Nation state spying will apparently continue,” Burgess added. “That is a hole in the agreement the size of a Mack truck. Cyber will remain the battleground of the 21st century.”
The agency has already posted openings under its Business, IT & Security Positions, including a “Cyber Security Officer,” who would be responsible for “defense in depth principles and technology in security engineering designs and implementation” and who could “engineer and deploy network defense countermeasures such as anti-virus, anti-spam, and intrusion detection and prevention system solutions.”
In many ways it is now clear that the CIA is extending its area of coverage to what has typically been the domain of the National Security Agency (NSA).
“The good news is that there are now tons of cyber security jobs across all agencies including the federal and local government as well as in the intelligence community,” said Dr. Josh Pauli of Dakota State University, which is one of a number of centers of higher education that have been designated as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations by the NSA.
“The CIA is now coming out and saying that they are really investing manpower and resources in cyber security,” added Pauli. “The CIA has been very traditional cloak and dagger espionage gatherer, but they have also done a lot of digital and cyber work. Under the new directorate they have raised the flag that they are moving much more forward with cyber.”
The career opportunities include programming, database and analyst work; especially as the agency may conduct greater emphasis on analysis work than it had previously.
“If I were a job seeker interested in work that was traditionally done at the NSA or DARPA it would pay to look into what the CIA is seeking as well,” noted Pauli. “The NSA has controlled cyber operations but now there is that role at the CIA as well.”
Because of the greater threat from cyber attacks the NSA’s Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations has greatly expanded since it was started 15 years ago, but the key to this remains that excellence is what the intelligence community will continue to seek.
“Students coming out of the more elite programs are what these agencies are looking for,” said Dr. Sujeet Shenoi, F.P. Walter Professor of Computer Science at the University of Tulsa. “At the same time it is a race to the bottom because the more people you have the better prepared you will be.”
The type of training for the intelligence community – including the CIA – continues to include low level programming, reverse engineering and development of hardware and software, understanding of operating systems and security principles. How the different agencies will utilize this knowledge may still differ in many respects.
“The NSA will likely remain a techie organization while the CIA is more a human interaction organization,” said Shenoi.
The NSA can be also credited with developing this pipeline through its Center of Excellence program, and it is the primary source of the river for the new talent added Burgess. The entire intelligence community may look to the program to find potentially younger talent.
“It is always better to hire people who are younger in their lives,” he explained. “They can get through the polygraph and background checks as their life is far less complicated.”
At the same time the talent that the CIA is seeking might not be that different from what Silicon Valley firms look for as well.
“It is the same people that Cisco is looking for, that IBM and any other tech giant is looking for,” said Burgess. “The CIA wants those who have the ability to think in an innovative matter and understand the tools that exist in today’s technology. That doesn’t mean they are looking to bring in people with years of experience in cyber security as they can teach that. In the real world you don’t generally have a 100 percent of the information you want or need, so the intelligence community wants those who can make decisions based on what information you do have.”
Threat of Poaching
In the short term the demand for those with such a narrow skill set could mean that the agencies may become highly competitive in acquiring talent. The intelligence community could look at the private sector but it could also seek to hire away the best and brightest from rival agencies.
“DARPA is an example of what could be deemed fair game, so there will be poaching from the military but it comes as we are facing a downsize,” said Burgess. “That could provide a treasure trove of folks who have both discipline and experience.”
Even those with the ‘more complicated’ lives may still be recruited for the experience they bring to the table.
“For the more senior positions there is a market too,” explained Burgess. “Some folks may be asked to take a few years and join the mission, as they provide the experience to help run the center like a business.”
The downside for the CIA may be that it hasn’t been traditionally know as the high tech agency.
“The CIA has taken a backseat in cyber and computer to traditional info gathering,” said Pauli. “That is changing as noted by this new directorate, but they could still have a hard time getting the ‘brand’ out there.”
However, for the CIA it may also be easier to teach cyber skills to those with skills and training in other areas.
“The opportunities right now are unbelievable,” said Shenoi, who has seen his students go to the NSA and U.S. Navy and then muster out in the private sector and work for such companies as Instagram. “You do have to really earn your credentials, but we strive to prepare people for this kind of work, and it is much easier to teach a nuclear engineer computer science than it would be possible to teach it the other way around.”
Thus the skills that students learn preparing and working for the intelligence community can help them succeed in the private sector. However, many enjoy the opportunities so much it becomes a lifelong career instead.
“This is totally awesome stuff,” said Shenoi. “I can’t wait to get up in the morning as I know I’m doing good for my country, and my students are the same way.”