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Internet of Things Devices: Intelligence-Gathering Opportunity?

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held Feb. 9, security officials testified about the threats facing the United States -- and possible opportunities.

Top national security officials testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the threats facing the United States. Among their considerations: technology such as artificial intelligence, autonomous decision-making and the growing Internet of Things (IoT), and evolving risks.

In his testimony Tuesday, Feb. 9, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said existing and developing technologies will play a significant part in the opportunities and challenges facing the intelligence and security community in the coming years.

“This innovation is central to our economic prosperity, but it will bring new security vulnerabilities,” he said. “The Internet of Things connects tens of billions of new physical devices that could be exploited."

While his comments seemed to lean toward the risks associated with networked, connected devices, his written statements submitted to the committee also highlighted the opportunity to gather intelligence through the technology.

“‘Smart’ devices incorporated into the electric grid, vehicles — including autonomous vehicles — and household appliances are improving efficiency, energy conservation, and convenience. However, security industry analysts have demonstrated that many of these new systems can threaten data privacy, data integrity, or continuity of services,” he wrote. “In the future, intelligence services might use the loT for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.”

Encryption Troubles

Also at the hearing, Federal Bureau of Investigations Director James Comey testified that encrypted devices were a significant impediment to law enforcement and their ability to investigate and prosecute crimes.

“Especially devices, phones, that default lock," Comey said. "That is the overwhelming concern of state and local law enforcement because all of our lives are becoming increasingly digital, those devices are going to hold the evidence of child pornography, communications that someone made before they were killed, before they went missing, the evidence that would be necessary to solve a crime…”

Comey said reports that the FBI wants “backdoor access” into devices has been overstated, but rather that the agency would like to be able to get access when granted it through the court order process.

He pointed to a device collected following the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., as one example of the challenges facing law enforcement. Despite having the device for more than two months, the FBI director said investigators have yet to be able to open it for evidence purposes.

“I don’t want a door. I don’t want a window. I don’t want a sliding glass door. I would like people to comply with court orders, and that’s the conversation we are trying to have,” he said. “Encryption is a problem in our investigations; it is also a great thing and therein lies the challenge…”

Array of Threats

When asked to prioritize the sizable list of threats before the senate committee, Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan weighed in, though largely avoided ranking a top concern. Ultimately, Brennan said he was “very concerned” about the vulnerabilities posed in the digital environment. 

“As it was pointed out, we’re facing this array of threats. The one area that I’m very concerned about is the increasing concerns about vulnerabilities in the digital domain and cyber,” he said. “I do think we as a country need to make sure that we understand what those vulnerabilities are and then I think, to Jim Comey’s points and others’ points, making sure that the intelligence and security services and law enforcement services of this country have a role to help protect that environment, because our way of life, our future, really depends on making sure it is strong.”

The conversation also turned toward the online capabilities of extremist groups, like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS, IS), and their efforts to draw in recruits through social media platforms and attack United States online assets.

Encrypted communications channels, like Telegram, were a topic of much discussion following the terror attack in Paris, France, Nov. 13, 2015 and reports that the social networks were used to coordinate the attacks.

Despite the mostly information tone and tenor of the testimony, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) called out Brennan on a 2014 search of committee staff files by CIA officers during a review of agency interrogation techniques. The testimony drifted away from national security and intelligence gathering and kicked off a brief, but heated exchange.

Wyden insinuated that the agency had been “spying” on the committee responsible for CIA oversight, a claim Brennan vehemently denied, saying intelligence officers were acting within the scope of their duties to protect classified documents. 

Other topics addressed by the panel included the technological standing of Russia and China, the territory being held by ISIL in the Middle East and recent nuclear testing in North Korea. In addition to Brennan, Clapper and Comey, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers also testified.

Eyragon Eidam is the web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at