How IARPA’s Technologies Are Protecting the National Security of the United States
By Chanel Lloren
Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) was created in 2006 to advance the development of research and technology used to achieve the intelligence goals of the United States (US) and “avoid technological surprise.” IARPA takes advantage of the existing intelligence within academia and the industry by funding high-risk projects that the agency predicts could have a high-payoff when it comes to protecting and defending US national security.
On July 11, the Computer History Museum (CHM) hosted IARPA Director Dr. Jason Matheny. It was an intriguing conversation about the variety of technological advancements, from machine learning to bioinformatics, being created by IARPA and partnering academic institutions, research organizations, and industry professionals to protect the national security of the US. Since being named director of IARPA in 2015, Matheny’s priority has been to protect IARPA’s program managers from bureaucracy, solicit research proposals, and continue its tradition of funding innovative ideas aimed at solving some of the country’s most complex problems. Matheny joined David C. Brock, director of the Museum’s Center for Software History, on the CHM Live stage for “Why Software Matters to Government Intelligence.”
Why IARPA Cares about Quantum Computing
Switching gears from software to hardware, IARPA is investing in machinery to produce new forms of computing. Matheny explains how traditional computers are limited in their capabilities to process and analyze the sheer volume of data that society is creating. That’s why IARPA is also investing in programs around supercomputing to develop their complex circuits, as well as quantum computing to create their qubit chips.
How IARPA’s Forecasting Tournaments Are Helping Analysts
Fancy gadgets and software aside, Matheny insists that humans are not replaceable because the analysts are needed to present the arguments and defend the research results. That being said, the agency recognizes that unlike computers, humans have biases that could affect their interpretation of data, which is why it invests in cognitive psychological programs that aim to assist analysts with making better decisions.
How Will Future Encryption Technologies Protect Privacy?
The privacy concerns around releasing or leaking people’s private information is another issue that IARPA is trying to solve. Matheny is constantly seeking and selecting proposals for technologies aimed to keep our information both secure and private. One example of a technology that IARPA is investing in that accomplishes these two goals is homomorphic encryption.
How IARPA Is Protecting Private Information
Matheny points out that commercial technologies, like Facebook, that are primarily used for marketing and social purposes, make it harder to distinguish between private and public information. Many believe this type of data collection is intrusive. IARPA is investing in technologies that attempt to safeguard personal information, which includes developing techniques to spoof image classifiers and facial recognition software. Matheny discusses the importance of solving the problem of deanonymized data and believes it can be tackled with a multipronged approach — through technology, regulation, and policy.
What’s One of the Biggest National Security Threats That the United States Faces?
There are real world applications of IARPA’s research and technologies that are benefiting society. For example, Mark Zuckerberg purchased some of the agency’s biomedical texts and patent analyses for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Matheny also cites IARPA’s breakthrough work in the area of disease forecasting. For example, by analyzing datasets of early indicators associated with disease outbreaks, such as cancelling dinner reservations or crowding at pharmacies, IARPA-funded teams at Harvard University were able to detect the West African Ebola virus outbreak.
How Does IARPA Address the Needs of Other Intelligence Agencies?
Matheny stresses the indispensable role of the program managers, scientists, and engineers that get hired to work on these cutting-edge IARPA projects. Matheny explains that the process of getting a project funded by the agency is to submit an idea. Ideas come through several channels, including proposals from outside of the agency, through crowdsourcing and from employees within other intelligence agencies.
Watch the Full Conversation
CHM Live Backstage
The CHM Live team caught up with IARPA’s Jason Matheny backstage to ask him some rapid-fire questions about himself. Here’s what he had to say.
Matheny: Radio Shack TRS-80, 16k RAM. (See it in the Museum’s permanent exhibition, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.)
CHM Live: What’s your favorite book?
Matheny: Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons.
CHM Live: What’s your favorite piece of advice?
Matheny: “MaxiPOK Rule”: maximize the probability of an OK outcome, where an OK outcome is any outcome that avoids an existential catastrophe.
CHM Live: Which current moonshot/tech project would you most like to happen?
Matheny: Success in IARPA’s biosecurity programs. Bio risks are keeping me up at night.
Hebern Rotor Machine, Hebern Electric Code Company, USA, ca. 1917
On display during this conversation was CHM’s Hebern code machine, one of only about a dozen Hebern machines known to exist today.
Cryptography is the lifeblood of the intelligence community. Since the conclusion of WW II, it has assumed immense importance and all modern nations consider it now to be a strategic capability. But before our modern supercomputer-based code making and codebreaking approaches, simpler mechanical systems — which long predated the computer itself — were used to secure communications on the battlefield and between foreign embassies and their home offices.
Many of the early systems relied on a simple “rotor” system in which text is entered and then scrambled by passing the signal for the letter through various cross-connections, usually in the form of rotors or wheels that carry these signals via electrical contacts around the circumference of each rotor wheel. Rotors changed position with each keypress, making it more robust than a simple substitution cipher, the same principle used in the better-known German ENIGMA machine, which was invented at about the same time. While appealing in theory, the legendary American cryptographer William Friedman found a way to defeat the Hebern, no doubt accounting for the lack of sales from the US military (though the Navy eventually ordered a small number of them). (Contributed by Dag Spicer, Senior Curator.)
A Gift of the Chamberlain Family in honor of William J. Mitchel, Jr., CHM# 102743692
Learn more in “Before ENIGMA: Breaking the Hebern Machine.”
About the Author
Chanel Lloren is the Associate Producer of CHM Live. Chanel kicked off her producing career in New York City as a production associate for VH1. She has worked on shows, including several Greatest Lists countdowns, Top 20 Oscar Moments, Cutest Celebrity Babies, and hopped over to MTV as an Associate Producer for a season of When I Was 17. After moving to San Francisco in 2011, she freelanced for Indigo Films and Oracle at their HQ studios. Chanel holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in broadcast journalism and media studies.
Originally published at www.computerhistory.org.