Interview with the Head of the NSA’s Research Directorate

MIT Technology Review published an interview with Gil Herrera, the new head of the NSA’s Research Directorate. There’s a lot of talk about quantum computing, monitoring 5G networks, and the problems of big data:

The math department, often in conjunction with the computer science department, helps tackle one of NSA’s most interesting problems: big data. Despite public reckoning over mass surveillance, NSA famously faces the challenge of collecting such extreme quantities of data that, on top of legal and ethical problems, it can be nearly impossible to sift through all of it to find everything of value. NSA views the kind of “vast access and collection” that it talks about internally as both an achievement and its own set of problems. The field of data science aims to solve them.

“Everyone thinks their data is the messiest in the world, and mine maybe is because it’s taken from people who don’t want us to have it, frankly,” said Herrera’s immediate predecessor at the NSA, the computer scientist Deborah Frincke, during a 2017 talk at Stanford. “The adversary does not speak clearly in English with nice statements into a mic and, if we can’t understand it, send us a clearer statement.”

Making sense of vast stores of unclear, often stolen data in hundreds of languages and even more technical formats remains one of the directorate’s enduring tasks.

Posted on February 3, 2022 at 6:01 AM13 Comments


Ted February 3, 2022 9:24 AM

I am also curious about the “adversaries that have their own indigenous services and that create their own technology” not to mention the global research in “synthetic biology.” Wat is this? 😬

It looks like Gil Herrera was appointed as the Director of Research in August 2021 and has quite a background including 40 years at Sandia National Laboratories…

Ted February 3, 2022 9:29 AM

Is this semi-transparency unusual for the NSA? The article adds… “[The directorate] operates almost like a small, elite technical college, organized around five academic departments—math, physics, cyber, computer science, and electrical engineering—each staffed with 100 to 200 people.”

Why would they like to share this I wonder? That article had caught my attention as well.

JonKnowsNothing February 3, 2022 10:13 AM


re Why would they like to share this

They are recruiting.

There’s about to be another “unWar/noWar” and they need people to man the Battleship Grid. Fire at D5.

GCHQ has a We Want Nerds recruiting campaign.

They need more nerds to track BYOB parties at Downing Street.

Search Term
  Battleship (game)

Clive Robinson February 3, 2022 5:37 PM

@ Who,

Math is beautiful, what we do with it not so much.

The same was said perhaps more crudely about physics,

“The Trinity test was when physics lost it’s virginity.”

It is the fate of all things theoretical that have a practical relationship to reality, that they almost always first get used as some form of weapon by some humans against other humans.

I don’t realy know what this says fundementaly about some or all humans, but from my limited perspective it makes me sad that things are generally this way.

CarpetCat February 4, 2022 7:28 AM

Notice they say “everything of value” and not the common phrase “anything of value”

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons February 4, 2022 6:04 PM

@ Clive

I don’t realy know what this says fundementaly about some or all humans, but from my limited perspective it makes me sad that things are generally this way.

Okay Clive, somehow I see this as a progression in your thinking. Not to be judgmental, but observationally your neutrality respecting technology or science is advancing, and you are correct to say that it is a concern.

I too had a more rosy outlook from a technological perspective. Indeed, technology could have the impact of changing the world in a way that would expand the concept of freedom. Allowing individuals to explore their own capabilities, limits, and dreams. Now I am afraid that most of the utopian space envisioned by many innovators in the day (Cyberpunks, Netizens, and the likes of Steve Wozniak) has been coopted by opportunists, malevolent, and dark forces for nefarious ends. I see many nation states moving to control populations, to define new borders, and to assert control over more and more aspect of everyday life. With the war on truth in a post-truth world, and the perceived need to moderate thought (ironic statement, not by me but as a concept), leads one to reflect on priorities and goals.

Cheers (respectfully and in earnest humanhood),
Stay well OG Clive

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons February 4, 2022 6:10 PM

I am familiar with one of the elite universities that the NSA has a license to fish from, don’t know what their limit is or how many tags they hold. But they do show up every year with a long pole and plenty of line. Haven’t caught them dragnet fishing, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did. I avoid them easily by donning dear pheromones and antlers when the season starts. Those waskely wabbits…

ResearcherZero February 4, 2022 9:28 PM

“The adversary does not speak clearly in English with nice statements into a mic and, if we can’t understand it, send us a clearer statement.”

When the head of the SVR said, “We are planning something for our 100th anniversary”, that seemed like a pretty clear statement. It was considerably nicer than the statement from the GRU that whizzed through my hair, just above my ear.

Perhaps if all the politicians were not busy with parties, then relevant statements would reach relevant ears. Said politicians would have to then behave responsibly, and that is a very tall order.

ResearcherZero February 4, 2022 10:11 PM

Or there was that other time when the GRU blew up my hotel room and the local police said (while doing their very best to impersonate The Three Stooges),
“We can’t do anything they are spies.”

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