NSA ‘recently completed’ AI strategic study, director says

by Braxton Taylor

The National Security Agency just finished a strategic study on using artificial intelligence and machine learning for its missions, its director said Tuesday. 

Without giving much detail, Gen. Paul Nakasone said his agency recently completed a “roadmap for AI/ML,” exploring questions such as how generative AI and machine learning will be used for missions and how it may affect NSA workers.

“We use artificial intelligence primarily within our signals intelligence mission…I would look at it differently for our cybersecurity mission,” and business functions, Nakasone said at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, D.C.

Cyber Command, which Nakasone also leads, also has a five-year AI plan, which contemplates how to use the technology “in the realm of cyberspace operations.”

The NSA director spent much of his keynote interview looking back at how cybersecurity threats have changed since he took office in 2018, when the focus was election security.

“We’ve seen supply chain, we’ve seen zero days, we’ve seen ransomware. We’ve seen a number of different actors that have changed and who provided an inflection point for all of us to say…‘this is a national security issue, we’ve got to think differently,’” Nakasone said. In short, he said: “Cyber security is national security.”

As the threats changed, Congress provided agencies with new authorities, created the national cyber director role in the White House, and stood up the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which has released numerous recommendations to improve national cybersecurity. 

“What we do hasn’t changed that much,” he said. “At NSA we still do cybersecurity and signals intelligence. At Cyber Command we do cyberspace operations. But how we do it has changed dramatically,” including hunt forward operations in other countries and opening the NSA’s Cyberspace Collaboration Center. 

Nakasone reiterated his call for Congress to reauthorize the controversial Section 702 authority that allows government agencies to collect foreign actors’ digital data, like emails and phone services. The authority, which has been linked to uncovering ransomware plots and disrupting fentanyl manufacturing, expires later this year. Opponents of renewing it, including some lawmakers, note that the authority has been used to improperly collect Americans’ data.

But Nakasone and allies in and out of the intelligence community, call 702 vital to national security.

“100 percent of the intelligence requirements the president requires are wrapped up in some type of 702 collect,” he said, as is nearly two-thirds of the Presidential Daily Brief. Additionally, about 20 percent of what the NSA collects is based on some form of intelligence collected via 702 and the vast majority of that is “single-sourced to 702.”

“It is an authority that ensures our national security and the protection of our civil liberties and privacy. Not or but and,” Nakasone said. “It is an authority that has saved lives, ensuring the protection of our homeland. It is an authority that is overseen by all three branches of government.”

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