Quantum Computing Will Reshape Digital Battlefield, Says Former NSA Director Hay
Former NSA Chief Michael Hayden, pictured here speaking in Washington in April, said it's unclear whether quantum computing will favor offensive or defensive cyber operations. Photo: TOM WILLIAMS/ZUMA PRESS
Source: Jennifer Strong
When retired Air Force General Michael Hayden took the helm of the National Security Agency in 1999 he found intelligence gathering, namely electronic espionage, to be in the midst of a sea change. Rather than “waiting for someone to send a message,” he says, “we could penetrate an adversary’s information system and extract information, whether or not they ever intended to transmit it.” A former director of the NSA and CIA, Mr. Hayden calls the years that followed the “golden age of electronic surveillance” — when foreign intelligence was widely available because “the human species was putting so much of its information” into poorly protected digital systems.
Fast forward to the current emphasis on data security and end-to-end-encryption, and another massive change for intelligence gathering, albeit one long anticipated. We’ve moved out of what he calls “a period that was a bit of an anomaly” to one where it’s harder to retrieve the contents of intercepted communications. “You adjust,” he says.
In the ongoing battle between law enforcement and Apple Inc. over whether the company should assist the government in cracking into iPhones, Mr. Hayden says it “surprised a lot of folks that people like me generally side with Apple” and its CEO Tim Cook. He says his position in support of Apple and the case for keeping encryption keys out of the hands of law enforcement, has nothing to do with privacy or business concerns but the integrity of security systems. “On security grounds, I’m not so sure we should make Mr. Cook punch a hole inside the security of his operating system,” he says, because “we’ve all put really valuable things in this digital space and the government is going to have to depend on the private sector to help us defend it.” He continues, “we ought to think twice, maybe three times, before we make the private sector do something that will make it harder for them to do what probably only they can.”
We spoke to Mr. Hayden for an episode of WSJ’s The Future of Everything podcast. Edited excerpts are below.
Do you believe there’s a deterrence failure when it comes to cyber threats?
Yes, and it’s been really interesting watching this debate take shape. I’m hearing folks who think we should be more aggressive using our offensive cyber power for defensive purposes. Now that’s not been national policy. We have not tried to dissuade other countries from attacking us digitally by attacking them digitally.
During the nuclear period we thought of deterrence in two ways. We had counterforce strikes, which means we’re going to go hit your weapons so your weapons can’t hurt us. We also had something called countervalue strikes, which means we’re going to go hurt something that can’t hurt us, but you think very dear. That’s a debate going on now.
What are your current thoughts on quantum encryption or quantum codebreaking?
When machine guns arrived it clearly favored the defense. When tanks arrived? That favored the offense. One of the tragedies of military history is that you’ve got people making decisions who have not realized that the geometry of the battlefield has changed because of new weapons. And so you have the horrendous casualties in World War I and then you’ve got the French prepared to fight World War I again and German armor skirts the Maginot Line. Now I don’t know whether quantum computing will inherently favor the offense or inherently favor the defense, when it comes to encryption, security, espionage and so on, but I do know it’s going to affect something.
What other emerging technologies are you watching?
Henry Kissinger wrote an article about this recently in which he warned against our infatuation with data and artificial intelligence. We can’t let data crowd out wisdom. And so when I talk to people in the intelligence community who are going all out for big data and AI and algorithms I say, “you really do need somebody in there somewhere who understands Lebanese history, or the history of Islam.” Put all the silicon you want into this process but remember it’s all designed to support the carbon-based machine at the end of the process.
Do you worry about the lower barrier to entry for acquiring these kinds of capabilities and what that could mean?
Of course. I mean it’s the dark side of the coin. Speed, accessibility, usability, ubiquity — those things are virtues until you think about them in the hands of someone who wants to do you harm, and then they are tremendous disadvantages. We are going to have to work to keep pace to not be punished by the very attributes we built this thing for in the first place. You’ve got the lower cost of entry. You’ve got nation states or sub-state groups or criminal gangs or just simply a, “I’m mad at everybody” group who actually can do things beyond what those groups could have done in the past.
But what are you gonna do — turn the clock back?