Tech'ed Up

Tech at the CIA • Sheetal Patel

November 30, 2023 bWitched Media
Tech'ed Up
Tech at the CIA • Sheetal Patel
Show Notes Transcript

Assistant Director of the CIA for the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, Sheetal Patel, joins Niki in the studio to talk about how important tech is to their mission, partnerships with the private sector, and why they are actively recruiting technologists. This episode looks back at technology that the CIA helped bring to our everyday lives and looks forward to the impact of AI. 

“The global strategic competition in emerging technology is actually occurring in the private sector. And so, for us, for CIA in particular, but I would say for my intelligence community colleagues as well, working with the private sector has never been so important.” -Sheetal Patel


[music plays] 

Niki: I’m Niki Christoff, and welcome to Tech’ed Up! On today’s episode, Sheetal Patel from the CIA joins me in the studio to talk tech. She’s the Assistant Director of the Transnational and Technology Mission Center and she’s here to share her insights into how the intelligence community partners with private sector tech companies and experts to advance its mission. 

I don’t know about you, but I thought it was pretty cool of her to take the time to chat with us. And also, in case you’re interested, the CIA is hiring, folks! 


Niki: Welcome listeners. I'm going to start today by drawing attention to the fact that I sound a little bit - I'm hoping I sound sultry, but I also think it's possible that I sound like Marge Simpson's sisters because I have laryngitis. But today's guest, who is safely six feet away from me, is Sheetal Patel. Welcome. 

Sheetal: Thank you very much, Niki. 

Niki: So she's joining us from the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, and today we're talking about how the intelligence community, but specifically CIA, is evolving as technology evolves in the private sector to advance our national security mission.

So, let's get started with you. Let's do a little background on how you ended up in the job you have, what your current job is, sort of that trajectory, and, and what you're, what you're focused on. 

Sheetal: So, I am what you would call an all-source analyst, which is taking all aspects of information that's out there from different collection means. It can be technical, human, open source, and putting the best analytic picture together on what it is. And at CIA, there are multiple directorates. 

So, most people in popular culture know the Directorate of Operations. Right? They're out there, they're at the pointy end of the spear, they're doing the collection operations, they're on the ground. 

You have the Directorate of Science and Technology, which I would call probably “the Q.” [Niki: Oh, okay] from James Bond. [Niki: Yeah, yeah] There's the Directorate of Digital Innovation and what they are doing is working to help us manage the data we have. The open source center, cyber, all of that falls under digital innovation. They're innovating on new ways to deal with technological advances on how we do our businesses. 

You have the Directorate of Support, and nobody can do anything without the Directorate of Support. They move us where we need to move. They make things happen. They take care of everything, buildings, you name it, they do it. They're the jack of all trades. 

And then you have the Directorate of Analysis, which does all-source analysis, primarily for the President and policymakers. Key customers, right? 

 In those directorates, the mission, the overall mission for CIA, there's four core areas.

One is foreign intelligence, [Niki: Mm-hmm] which is the collection, dissemination of foreign intelligence. Counterintelligence, which is the protection of our own officers, facilities. This would be where you would get the, the spy hunts working with our partners. And then, you have covert action, which is done at the order of the President, and then all source analysis.

So those are the four core pillars that CIA, when, when we talk about mission, those are the key mission areas. 

Niki: The reason that Sheetal is bringing this up is because even though [chuckling] I was married for a very long time to someone in the intelligence community [chuckling], I just asked her right before we started taping, I was like, “What does the mission mean?” [both chuckle] I didn't, I didn't get a lot of intel about that. [chuckling] 

Sheetal: I mean, fundamentally it comes down to protecting national security.

Niki: Because, because of an evolution in how you all are thinking about technologies?

Sheetal: When our director came in, he asked for a strategic review. And in the strategic review, he wanted to make sure we are positioned to deal with strategic competition, technology, private sector partnerships, and dealing with how are we positioned to counter some of the global threats, including from the People's Republic of China.

What came out of those reviews were a multitude of things. We ended up with a China Mission Center, a Transnational and Technology Mission Center, which I head, and a Chief Technology Officer who was hired from the private sector to help us work with the private sector better.

Niki: Ok, so these are new because it's, sort of, this movement into taking a look at things and trying to figure out a better way to retain, I'm assuming, retain?

Sheetal: There's a retention of talent, there's a recruitment of talent, but the one I'm most familiar with on the transnational and technology is there's been such a change, a revolutionary change in technology in the past couple of decades. It has changed how we are going to work daily, live our lives, fight in the future, right?

It is, it is at the core of everything we are doing. And that wasn't the case before, right? We, we don't just use technology today. It is literally a part of our everyday lives, right? So, if you look at computing power, storage, batteries, they're all growing more powerful, more affordable, the availability of data has grown exponentially, kind of making sense of all that data is critical now. And the Internet of Things, or Ubiquitous Technical Surveillance, as we call it. 

Niki: Ooh! Wait, hang on! 

So, the Internet of Things, you just called it Ubiquitous [trailing off]? 

Sheetal: Yes. Technical Surveillance. [Niki: Okay] So let's say if, when you came here, you had your phone on you. Right? Your phone tagged everywhere you were going as you came up. 

Niki: Oh! I know! And actually, I'm one of these, so…

Sheetal: And probably giving you very direct ads on “Are you interested in that?” 

Niki: [interrupts excitedly] Creepily direct!  It's like, I used to worry that my phone was listening to me. I now think my phone can read my mind because I will just think something and then I get an ad for it. [chuckling]

Sheetal: There's a lot of people who like to test that out. But that is what, what is called Ubiquitous Technical Surveillance, right?

Everything from street cameras, to your phone, to your computer, your car. You can map out where a person's going. So, as you can imagine, it also has implications for intelligence operations. 

Niki: Yep! I actually think that I read somewhere that D.C. has the most cameras of any city in the world. Although maybe London has more?

Sheetal: I'm sure Google would know if you went to Google. 

Niki: I'm sure. So, I worked at Google for eight years. I feel, uh, like I am subjected to ubiquitous surveillance.

And I'm one of these people who, I will not have the Internet of Things in my house. I will not have an Alexa. But to my detriment, because it just makes-

Sheetal: Do you have cable? 

No, I'm cable-free. 

Sheetal: Do you have rabbit ear antennas?

Niki: No, I'm like Will Smith from Enemy of the State. [Sheetal: laughing]I have chicken wire over my house. I mean, it's almost that bad! I am sort of weird about my privacy. But, I think, I've talked to people on my team who are 15 years younger. And they just don't; they're like, “The convenience completely outweighs any privacy concerns.” [Sheetal: Mm-hmm] Where I will inconvenience myself [chuckling] to a pretty high degree just to have a little more privacy. 

Although there's no privacy to be had because, to your point, I brought my cell phone from my house where everybody could know that I live, they know I come here a certain number of times a week. They know who's in this space.

And then, yes, that underlies what you guys also have to deal with too, which is, I would assume, a lot more data in a different format than 20 years ago. 

Sheetal: Exactly. And, and folks who have a routine, I remember a colleague of mine once going, “Y’know, I get a recommendation for which coffee I'm going to order, and if it should be pre-ordered on Saturday mornings,” because that routine was, was very specific, every Saturday morning going to a particular coffee shop. So, the phone just started suggesting, “Are you going to have this coffee today?” Or if you miss it, you miss it. 

Niki: Yeah, so sometimes, yeah, sometimes I notice that when I'm with people who have kids, I don't have kids, I'll start getting parenting content. And then because I'm like, “What's this about?” I'll click on it, and the next thing I know, I'm looking at Halloween costumes.

Sheetal: It's amazing algorithms. 

Niki: It's amazing algorithms. [chuckling] So. This is sort of a, that's been a little of a tangent but leads to how I found you in the first place, which is that earlier this year, I was at South by Southwest. I have a personal interest in the intelligence community, although less knowledge than one would think I would have.

And one of my team members who lives in San Antonio, we were there together and I said, “Let's go to the CIA panel,” and we walked in, and I was like, “Are we in the right room?”  

Sheetal: It was standing room only!  

Niki: Literally packed to the rafters with people interested in hearing about careers at the CIA. That was essentially the topic.

And then, listening to you and the fellow panelists talk about it, I just thought it was very interesting. So, it ties into this idea that there's more information; it's digital information. The ways it's coming in are different, and the private sector is collecting a lot of that. 

And so, you were talking about two things that I'd love to discuss. [Sheetal: Mm-hmm] One was sort of a look back at, at technology that the government has kickstarted and then also why you're looking close, more closely at the private sector and people who are technology experts for either partnership or recruiting. So, maybe we can talk about the two things you were or other things that you were thinking about at South By.

Sheetal: When I was talking about technology and we kind of started talking about phones and Ubiquitous Technical Surveillance, one of the biggest changes is China's rise as a competitor in the technology sector.

It's been kind of striking on how rapid it has been when you talk about peer or near-peer in AI, in communications, on a lot of areas, like biotechnology. So, this Mission Center, the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, one of the things that it was created to do was kind of partner with the private sector and academia and look at the technological revolution.

I mean, we'll go into the past on how the government has helped fund some of the technologies that we use on a daily basis now, but really, where the evolution is taking place because technology moves so fast, and it's literally exponential on how fast it goes, is that it's occurring in the private sector, and it's occurring in academic institutions, right?

The innovation hub is more in that space, and the global strategic competition in emerging technology is actually occurring in the private sector. And so, for us, for CIA in particular, but I would say for my intelligence community colleagues as well, working with the private sector has, has never been so important. Right? 

Gaining insights from the private sector. These are not secrets, but they actually have an idea of where these technologies are going. Who's doing what? What are the supply chains for these technologies? Right? And supply chain has become a really big buzzword ever since COVID and people ran out of toilet paper, or container ships were off the coast of California, and you didn't know if you were going to get Christmas gifts. 

Niki: I think though, having been at Google for eight years, one thing, since you mentioned The People's Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party is a, I talk a lot about it [Sheetal: chuckles] on this podcast. 

I have a lot of thoughts on it. There's some debate among my peers around, “Oh, it's sort of a paper tiger. They're actually not as advanced in AI as people think they are.”

I personally, I don't know, but I disagree with that. And I think that, I think it's a huge threat, not just to national security, but to our economic competitiveness, which is why the private sector is so focused on it. When I was at Google ten years ago, I was sitting in the room when the founders, Larry and Sergei, decided to pull our business out of China. And it was partly because of censorship, but it was partly because of hacking by our joint venture partners in China.

So, y’know, I think Google is probably one of, if not the, most secure infrastructures in the world, government or private sector. And we still kept getting hacked by our partners by having a footprint in China. And so, obviously, they're going to have a lot of expertise about understanding what that looks like, what those vectors look like, what the threat is, and then how they're being taken advantage of economically, potentially. And then, I think that probably would be really good information for the U.S. government. 

Sheetal: Exactly, right? It is a, a partnership, communication, it's, it's insights, it's learning what experiences have happened, what trend lines are going on. So, so when we stood up, we really focused on six key tech areas. We solicited inputs from everybody around the intelligence community as well as outside.

And what are the key areas of technologies that are really, they're going to shape the future and determine the trajectory of global competition but also have dual purposes? 

So, I'll just quickly go through them, [Niki: Yes!] but they are next-generation communications, right? It's from 5G to 6G, and Senator Warner also spoke about Huawei, right? So, we're talking about things like that. 

We don't want strategic surprise. That's the goal, right? We want to be able to, kind of, anticipate and get ahead of the curve, which is actually very hard when technology evolves so quickly. 

Niki: I'm going to just interrupt you super fast because you brought up Senator Warner.

So, when he was on this podcast, as you just mentioned, he brought up Huawei and the idea that we're having to go through and strip out hardware that we installed, not realizing that it was a potential surveillance vehicle. We're having to, like, go back and undo a lot of infrastructure. So, he talked about that, also an FCC Commissioner was on the podcast talking about that, too.

And how we're sort of, to your point, strategic surprise, we're trying to prevent that sort of thing by being on top of it. Is that? 

Sheetal: Anticipate it, right? [Niki: Anticipate it]  Have an understanding of where it's going. Know what the offensive, defensive capabilities are so that we don't get in that position again, right? [Niki: Yep!]

We can help inform policymakers and the Hill and others. Make sure that they understand and they can make the decisions that they need to do.

Niki: Because it's a national security risk, but it's also incredibly costly. [Sheetal: Yes] It just costs a lot of money to have to go back and fix that stuff. [Sheetal: Yes] 

Okay. Sorry, I interrupted you! [Sheetal: Nope, no worries]  Advanced technology. 5G, 6G. Advanced computing.

Sheetal: Which will also include quantum, quantum sensing, right? Everything around you, your environment, biotechnology. Financial technology, digital currencies, right, decentralized financial applications, changing how we do payments and how data moves around the world.

PRC efforts to develop central bank digital currencies as well as other countries. What does that mean for the dollar as the core of the central financial system, right? What are the implications if you do have a central bank digital currency and then you can trade with other countries on that currency?

So, what does that mean long term? [Niki: Mm-hmm]  And, you know, what does it mean for bad actors? Bad actors it reduces visibility into how they're moving money. Cryptocurrencies, right? How do you see terror finance? And how do you uncover that, basically, if it's all in cryptocurrency? 

Niki: I am stunned that three of the technologies [chuckling] you just mentioned are related to that.

So, I sort of fell into cryptocurrency for the last two years [chuckling]. I know a lot about it and we've talked a lot about it on this podcast. And there's sort of the, the tension between when it's on a blockchain versus bags of cash or I don't want to, I mean, I will say it about Senator Menendez. Y’know, bricks of gold in your house [chuckling].

It is on a ledger that's digital, but on the other hand, it's also anonymous or pseudonymous, [Sheetal: Mm-hmm] so it adds a layer that you guys have to kind of unpack to figure out what's happening. 

Sheetal: It's a little bit more complex. Yeah. 

Niki: It's a lot more complex! 

Sheetal: It's not impossible. [Niki: Right] But it's more complex.

Niki: Yeah. That's so interesting that that's within your remit because I, a lot of people, pooh-pooh crypto, and I keep saying, “It's not going away. It's not disappearing globally.” 

Sheetal: Yeah, and what I will say is, like, we work with our cyber folks on this, the, the financial networks folks, because it takes both sides to take a look at what's going on in this area. 

The other one that I would say is advanced power, so, batteries, [Niki: mmmhh] right, where China it has cornered the market on some of the batteries and production. What are the next generation of batteries? What are we doing on microelectronics? I mean, everybody is aware of microelectronics, right? There's a lot of policy around semiconductors. So, we are kind of focused on that. 

We don't do, in the T2 mission center, as I call it, we don't do anything in a vacuum, so we work with the rest of the agency, as well as the rest of the intelligence community and our private sector partners. Because, I see us as, we do everything from collection to analysis to technology, but we actually utilize the expertise that's around the agency and bring everybody together.

So we are doing a best athlete model on these. 

Niki: Oh, I like that! Okay. It's kind of this cross-functional, bringing everybody in.

Sheetal: Cross-functional. Bring it all together. Kind of, put all the best minds together and move out and whoever can do that the best, whether it's another mission center or directorate, kind of, supporting that while continuing down the path.

Right? That's the only way we're going to be able to do this. 

Niki:  Right. It's interesting that you mention, I think, batteries. When you talk about batteries and the minerals they're made out of, I could be wrong about this.

I think you have expertise in Afghanistan? And my understanding is they have a ton of lithium in Afghanistan. Or the places you might be mining for the things we want to put in our phones are places that can be tricky and problematic and maybe you have potentially China or other places taking advantage of that access to mines or minerals.

I think that's, it feels new to me. It's like a new angle on some national security issues. 

Sheetal: It is a new angle and, and it is one that we have been focusing on in the past two years. [Niki: Okay!] But yes, it is absolutely critical, right? Because when you start looking at everything around the world and you look at where ports are being set up by folks.

You gotta look at what's near there and why did, why is that there, right? So, there's a military purpose for ports. There's economic purposes, but also is there a mine nearby where you can get it out and move it? So, there's all sorts of interconnectedness in the global system that we are now kind of focusing in on. As are the rest of the government, right?

So it's not just CIA looking at this. [Niki: Right] And then we also are looking at related technologies and the convergence of multiple technologies. So, you noticed I didn't mention artificial intelligence[Niki: Right] because it works across all of these areas. 

So it will, it will exponentially change how these technologies advance because AI has the ability to be kind of revolutionary in some of these, the space, right? It's going to improve business processes. We look at how adversaries are going to use artificial intelligence, generative AI, all the, the buzz around Chat GPT. 

I will tell you I taught my dad how to use ChatGPT. 

Niki: What? What does your dad think?

Sheetal: So, I taught him to use it for a very specific purpose.

And it was to fix, to do copy-editing [Niki: oh yeah!] of things he was writing. 

Niki: Oh, is your dad a writer? 

Sheetal: He's not, but he writes different things for his own non-profit. And he would usually send it to me to review. 

Niki: Oh, this is great. So you just outsourced your work! 

Sheetal: I outsourced. [Niki: laughs]  And so I said, look, if you cut and paste it into ChatGPT, all you have to start the window with is:  “Please fix the grammar in this paragraph.”

And then he cut and pasted it, and the paragraph that came out when I looked at it was fabulous. 

Niki: That's amazing!

Sheetal:  And he was thrilled, right? So you have a almost 80-year-old learning how to use ChatGPT, but it makes his life much easier

So there are some good applications, but then there are the, the negative aspects or the, the things that we need to be concerned about on AI. So, we have an Office of Artificial Intelligence in the Directorate of Digital Innovation that's looking on how you bring AI into the building. [Niki: Mm-hmm] It's very exciting, right?

Our Open Source Center is looking at how you, you implement AI large language models and, kind of, generative AI to open source data to make job easier for analysts. [Niki: Faster] Faster because the amount of data out there is so much and how do you cull through all of that. 

Niki: And you're going to catch patterns.

Sheetal: You will catch patterns, you, you have to be cognizant of biases in results and kind of understand what is happening in that space, but at least you won't miss something that's out there. Right? [Niki: Right.] You can get translations done. The Directorate of Analysis is really being innovative in how to bring in AI to do kind of looking at analysis, testing assumptions, all of those things.

So, it's very exciting in that space. 

Niki: And you think of AI as almost, which actually I think a lot of people do, almost a layer on top of everything else. 

Sheetal: Yes. 

Niki: I actually find in the narrative right now - this is not related to what you do for a living at work, but in the zeitgeist right now, we're talking about job loss and people are completely freaked out about that.

And I don't think we've done a good job explaining some of the positive use cases, like the idea that when you go into an emergency room anywhere, even in a rural area, with AI, that emergency room doctor is going to be able to translate anything, whatever language you come in with, they're going to be able to understand you. That is a huge positive use case. 

Y’know, radiology is probably going to get a lot better and more accurate. You're not going to miss diagnoses if you have a perfect machine looking at scan versus scan. And then, I haven't even really thought that much about what it means for national security in kind of the intelligence sector.

Sheetal: We looked at the positives of it, but it also can help facilitate the spread of disinformation.

And so, understanding what is that and how to break that apart is going to be a national security challenge. Right? And it, it will enhance the ability of authoritarian regimes to exert domestic control. So, if you take AI and you take, then you have all your internet of things and interconnectedness and then you put AI on top of it, right? You can, you can, if you're an authoritative regime, you can do a lot more damage. [Niki: Right] I don't know if damage is the right word, but there you go! 

Niki: They can have a big impact. 

Sheetal: It can have a big impact. 

Niki: Right. It sort of, it multiplies their ability to [Sheetal: Yep] move things and and the speed they can do it. 

We'll go back to South By. So, at South By, you were discussing some things kickstarted by the government and then everything you just listed is moving at warp speed in the private sector. So, it's not just the government doing that. So, just for a fun historical look back. 

Sheetal: There's a, an amazing history of the government partnering with the private sector to develop technology that then translates into something that's everyday use. So, the ones that we have talked about the most, and it's not, you know, it's not from 75 years ago, but technology that's in your pocket or backpack, like lithium iodine batteries, right, is the kind that power cell phones now, but it was technology developed by CIA in the 1960s.

[Niki: Okay] And it was done to solve the problem of variable reliability and the long-term performance of batteries. So, the battery improved surveillance equipment and the operation of reconnaissance satellites, but now is actually powering cell phones. [Niki: Mm hmm] It evolved. Right. 

And the medical community does benefit a lot from research and development that's done not just by CIA, but also the intelligence community.

And I'll give an example. We partnered, we CIA, partnered with a company to create a technology to help analyze intelligence from satellite imagery. And what came out was a device that could convert light to electrical energy to form an image. That became a major component in what is now MRIs. 

Niki: Oh, interesting! 

Sheetal: So, we didn't develop MRIs, but we shared the software and processes that enhanced MRI’s efficacy as a breast cancer screening. 

Niki: That is fascinating, the idea that reconnaissance satellites could be, some of that tech could be shifted. 

Sheetal: It is really interesting. 

Niki: I don't think people know that! 

Sheetal: But it's the same way, like, private sector technology comes into the government.

The government works on R&D things that are for, y’know, our own mission requirements, but have a purpose that can be kind of tailored and really do good. [Niki: Yeah]

Then, the most familiar one that, that I can, that I can talk about is Google Earth. So that was one of the ones I, I believe at South by Southwest, I believe David Cohen, our Deputy Director, mentioned this, but it was CIA and the intelligence community worked with a company called Keyhole in 2003 to tailor Keyhole's system to fit intelligence needs.

We needed to transform the way officers worked with geographic information and earth imagery. And what came out of it, Google acquired Keyhole in 2004, which you know. 

Niki: I know, yeah!  

Sheetal: And then developed Google Earth, which now everybody uses!  

Niki: Which now everybody uses. I think people don't know those. When people think of like stuff the government say invented or fostered, they think the Internet [Sheetal: Right] just broadly but, but these are really specific examples of consumer uses and consumer advantages of things created and kick-started within the agency.

And now you're partnering and looking to recruit, and this is part of why you were at South By: people who might be working in the private sector to come over to the government or the public sector or partner with the public sector. So, I think actually that's what we should end on. 

Sheetal: Okay! 

Niki:  Recruiting. What are you guys looking for? What's most important to you in your current? 

Sheetal: Current job. So, I would say there's, there's a couple of things, right? Technology experts should really consider coming to CIA and if you don't want to come to CIA, I will put a recruitment pitch in for my IC colleagues. Technology experts are really needed in, in government, in the intelligence community.

It's, you have the opportunity to protect, advance U. S. national security. There's a passion for what we do at CIA that kind of permeates through the entire culture. 

I think it is just, it is a great place to be because you know you are doing something that means something, right? You're protecting America. You can marry your passions in a non-technical field with technology at CIA.

I already talked about the multiple directorates, so you saw the diversity of kind of skill sets that we hire for. But we need different skill sets to achieve mission. 

So, for example, I will say you can't produce intelligence analysis for the President without operations officers who collect the unique information that underpins that analysis. You need the science and technology guys to develop the gadgets for use in secret collection. 

We need people, not just with different skills, but we need people with diverse perspectives. Right? 

We are a global intelligence organization. People who have cultural, linguistic background in the countries we are trying to understand they offer crucial insights that those without that background might miss.

And different perspectives always make us stronger, right? You can come in with a plan, it's, it's a lesson I live by, I might have an idea that I want to do, but then I will get all the opinions of people who have different expertise, and you come out with a much better idea on how to pursue something. 

We tackle some of the hardest challenges, and so if you don't have that diversity of opinion, culture, background, it doesn't matter what it is, we don't evolve, and we don't remain agile, which is a critical component for the agency. 

So, we need all types of people. 

And I will say half of the jobs that are out there right now are STEM-related. And I would encourage people to go to the website to see what job applications are out there.

We also have people coming to the Society for Women Engineers in late October. Anybody who has questions or is interested, please check out the website. 

Niki: We will definitely put those links also in the episode notes, but that - my observation, having seen that room packed to the rafters, is people right now, especially with what's happening on the global stage, understand that there's a mission here. I think there's a little bit of frustration working at big tech, and they might be looking for something different.

So it's a, it's a mission of this podcast to try to connect the technology folks that listen to thinking again about possibly working in the public sector or spending some time in the public sector. 

So, I really appreciate you, Sheetal, taking the time to come in and talk about this. I'm very grateful. 

Sheetal: Thank you. This was fun.


Niki: On our next episode, I’m joined by Meghan Joyce, CEO of AI startup Duckbill. She’s another very cool Profiles in Tech guest and we’ll be talking about AI-augmented personal assistance. We explore her life as a start-up founder and how tech might finally be getting to the point where it can help with work-life balance. 

Please tune in to learn more!