Meet the NSA spies shaping the future

NSA research concept - Ms Tech | Getty, NSA

Meet the NSA spies shaping the future
MIT Technology Review, February 1, 2022
by Patrick Howell O’Neill

“In his first interview as leader of the NSA’s Research Directorate, Gil Herrera lays out challenges in quantum computing, cybersecurity, and the technology American intelligence needs to master to secure and spy into the future.”


For someone with a deeply scientific job, Gil Herrera has a nearly mystical mandate: Look into the future and then shape it, at the level of strange quantum physics and inextricable math theorems, to the advantage of the United States.


Herrera is the newly minted leader of the National Security Agency’s Research Directorate. The directorate, like the rest of the NSA, has a dual mission: secure American systems and spy on the rest of the world. The budget is classified, a secret among secrets, but the NSA is one of the world’s largest spy agencies by any measure and Herrera’s directorate is the entire US intelligence community’s biggest in-house research and development arm. The directorate must come up with solutions to problems that are not yet real, in a world that doesn’t yet exist.


In his first interview since getting the job, Herrera lays out the tech—and threats—his group will now be focusing on. His priorities show how much the NSA’s targets are changing, balancing its work surveilling terror groups with an appreciation of how rapidly the geopolitical landscape has shifted in recent years. And he explains why the rise of new technologies, in terms of both threat and opportunity, are at the heart of what his group must contend with.


Herrera takes the helm as the agency faces new challenges. The bipolar world of the Cold War belongs to the history books. The United States’ quick turn as a lone superpower is over. The new world is a messier one, defined by an emerging era of great power competition among nations like the United States, China, and Russia. Meanwhile, the NSA is still recovering from a massive set of leaks published nine years ago about global and domestic surveillance programs that set off a firestorm of criticism and calls for reform and changed the average American’s perception of the NSA. The companies that worked with them recoiled in embarrassment and anger. And it also changed the way the NSA operates.

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About the Author:

Patrick Howell O’Neill is the cybersecurity senior editor for MIT Technology Review. He covers national security, election security and integrity, geopolitics, and personal security: How is cyber changing the world? Before joining the publication, he worked at the Aspen Institute and CyberScoop covering cybersecurity from Silicon Valley and Washington DC.