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Strategic Competition in Cyberspace: Recapping an Event with Stephanie O’Sullivan, former PDDNI

By Mac Gagne. October 22, 2018.

While Duke remains a campus alive with exciting opportunities, individuals, and events, it is certainly not every day that former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence (PDDNI) Stephanie O’Sullivan comes by to speak. In an incredible event hosted by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy as well as the Program’s Cyber Club, O’Sullivan had a chance to speak about her experiences in the intelligence community, as well as comment on various topics pertaining to national and international cybersecurity strategy.

Primarily, O’ Sullivan first touched upon how cybersecurity tactics differ from country to country world-wide. From Israeli cyber defense to the strategies of our own United States government, she discussed how nations around the world tackle the issues of data protection, intelligence collection, and cybersecurity from radically different perspectives.

When prompted by Professor Peter Feaver, the moderator, about the many defense agencies in existence throughout the government, O’Sullivan was ready with yet another elegant answer: She discussed that every agency plays its own role in obtaining intelligence for the United States Department of Defense. From the National Geospatial Agency (NGA) to the CIA itself, each group plays a vital role in upholding the mission of the intelligence community. O’ Sullivan also mentioned the importance of these many agencies interacting, as it is this collaboration that increases the Department of Defense’s efficiency.

O’Sullivan furthermore addressed the topic of artificial intelligence and its development around the world. With relation to China’s recent research boom in artificial intelligence due to weaker data privacy norms than those in place throughout the EU, for instance, O’Sullivan was asked if a Western desire for data privacy would indeed hold the nation back from being competitive in the realm of artificial intelligence. Confidently, O’Sullivan discussed how the defense community’s work on AI attacks this issue by engineering software that automates both digital and physical tasks.

Another main topic of discussion touched upon in the meeting was that of careers in cyber, particularly in relation to the lull of Silicon Valley jobs as opposed to government work. At the ready to advocate for the private sector, O’Sullivan discussed how incredible it was to see their cyber work influence individuals on a daily basis. As former head of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (which she claimed was best equivalent to the iconic analyst role of Q in the James Bond movies), O’Sullivan was not shy to mention the incredible value of STEM and programming careers in the private sector, as they are often the driving force behind major research that can impact political events. Throughout this dialogue, of course, O’Sullivan commented on the importance of maintaining the secrecy of the intelligence community’s work, describing how she works hard to respect the discretion of her work while still commenting on her love for the private sector.

Needless to say, Stephanie O’Sullivan’s talk was inspiring and insightful. As a member of the Cyber Team myself, I feel I speak for the whole American Grand Strategy community when I say that this event not only intrigued the minds of humanities and STEM students alike but also brought to life the world of the United States intelligence community.

Madeleine “Mac” Gagne’ is a sophomore studying mathematics and a member of the Duke Cyber Team. Last year, she interned at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is interested in applying quantitative modeling to operations research.