American adversaries are embracing digital transformation in pursuit of powerful new capabilities. In order to maintain its competitive advantage, the United States must do the same, says Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director for Digital Innovation Jennifer Ewbank.
“Digital transformation” is the phrase du jour. Across the country and around the world, it reverberates in conference rooms and on Zoom meetings as executives huddle to discuss the ways in which emerging technology can help them reduce costs, increase efficiency and grow market share. For the Intelligence Community (IC), however, digital transformation isn’t about profits and productivity. It’s about American freedom, prosperity and security.
So declared Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Deputy Director for Digital Innovation Jennifer Ewbank during the opening keynote address Sunday at GEOINT Foreword, GEOINT 2022’s pre-conference science and technology day.
“It would be a mistake to think about…digital transformation as some sort of simple or fancy IT modernization,” Ewbank said. “Elastic cloud computing, big data, the Internet of Things, the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning—these things are transforming daily life in America, and our intelligence mission with it.”
Unfortunately, digital transformation isn’t just an American phenomenon. The same technology that is changing daily life in the United States is also changing daily life in Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, where digital transformation is empowering and enabling U.S. adversaries with new and growing capabilities.
“Those adversaries today are looking to digital innovations and cyber operations to undermine our national security. They steal intellectual property, influence foreign populations, undermine governments and threaten the physical and digital infrastructure of both government and private industry,” explained Ewbank, who said the United States is currently engaged in a “digital and cyber arms race” that it can and must win. “The forces we face on that digital and virtual battlefield are formidable and they represent a real threat to our national and economic security.”
According to Ewbank, the CIA is doing its part to ensure U.S. digital supremacy by focusing on three “enduring characteristics” that are encoded into the organization’s DNA: innovation, integration and partnerships.
The second—integration—was on full display during the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
“Extraordinary analysis, keen operational judgment and daring military movements on the ground were informed by collection from human sources, electronic signals, satellite imaging, ISR data and a whole lot more,” said Ewbank, who emphasized the importance of marrying clandestine intelligence sources with open-source intelligence sources like news coverage and social media. “Today, in this really dynamic digital media environment, OSINT is one of our richest sources of insight and our INT of first resort.”
Partnerships have become equally vital, according to Ewbank, who said successful digital transformation hinges on a variety of different collaborations, including those with foreign allies and with private industry. The latter have been especially effective during the war in Ukraine.
“Commercial GEOINT providers, watchdog groups and media organizations are playing increasingly important roles,” Ewbank said. “It is no longer surprising to see commercial satellite imagery, geospatial information and data analysis used to call out false narratives, to uncover propaganda campaigns, to track movements on the battlefield and to reveal to the world in near real time the humanitarian crisis inflicted on the Ukrainian people.”
One of the most important partnerships for the CIA going forward, Ewbank suggested, will be between human intelligence analysts and machines.
“Data must be managed as a key strategic asset…but data is not information, and information is not insight. So how do we turn all these 1s and 0s into valuable insights, and do so at scale and at the speed of mission?” Ewbank asked. “Machines. We simply must learn to partner with machines, leveraging automation and artificial intelligence to help us burn through the haystacks of information to reveal those needles of exquisite insight.”
As important as integration and partnerships are, neither can be fruitful without the CIA’s first enduring characteristic: innovation.
Without innovation, Ewbank insisted, the CIA and the IC in general risk going the way of extinct American businesses like Blockbuster.
“If I say ‘Blockbuster,’ we all know what that means,” Ewbank said. “It speaks to the fate of any company that fails to innovate in a hypercompetitive, data-driven digital world.”
Innovation—taking risks, experimenting, iterating and failing smartly—isn’t just the best way forward. For those who are charged with ensuring America’s national security, it’s the only way forward.
“We at CIA…don’t have the luxury of sitting idly by as [malicious] state actors in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Pyongyang or elsewhere accelerate their own digital transformation to advance their global aspirations,” Ewbank concluded. “In this line of business, it is: Innovate or perish.”