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In-Q-Tel President Chris Darby on the intelligence community's innovation challenges

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Rapid technological shifts have had a profound impact on the traditional capabilities — and competitive advantages — of the U.S. intelligence and defense communities, according to Chris Darby, the president and CEO of In-Q-Tel (IQT). Created in 1999, IQT functions as a strategic investment arm of the CIA and broader national security community. 

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Technology "underpins society today in a way it never has before," Darby said. "I think if you look at everything from projection of power to pre-deployment of capability, it's about technology. It's about your nation's technology and the way it is deployed around the world. And we're seeing adversaries leverage that, I think, quite successfully."

In a recent interview, Darby, who took the helm at IQT in 2006, told "Intelligence Matters" host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell that a "democratization" of technologies like satellites and geolocation services had served to close the capabilities gap between the United States and other nations. 

"[A]nybody can put a satellite constellation up," Darby said. "I can get imagery. I can do tag and tracking and locating and things like that with commercial platforms."

"I don't need to be a wealthy nation anymore to have an intelligence capability, to shape or impact another nation, to even have some level of kinetic impact with cyber and things like that," he said. "There's a leveling of the playing field." 

Helping the intelligence community stay ahead of technological advances and jumpstart innovative projects is one of the reasons IQT was first established — it serves as a go-between among the intelligence and defense communities, tech start-ups and venture capital firms. 

"We act as a translator" among all three, Darby said.

IQT has helped stand up the likes of mapping service Google Earth, Palantir — a software company that specializes in analyzing massive amount of data — and FireEye, a cybersecurity company that has detected and uncovered high-profile hacks and cyberattacks. 

"We make an investment a week in one of these companies," Darby told Morell. "And what we're really doing is paying them to adapt their technology to the unique environment our customers have."

Among the most formidable nation-state competitors the U.S. and its national security apparatus can expect to face, now and in the long term, Darby said, is China. 

"I think the Chinese have a very, very well-thought-out and sophisticated strategy," he told Morell. "And I think that they look at it at a global level."

Beijing's ability to gather and label data — telling a computer that a picture of a cow is, in fact, a picture of a cow, for instance — is "orders of magnitude" greater than that of other countries, Darby said.   

"[D]ata is the new oil. And China is just awash with data. And they don't have the same restraints that we do around collecting it and using it, because of the privacy difference between our countries," he said. "This notion that they have the largest labeled data set in the world is going to be a huge strength for them." 

Among the crucial differentiators over the coming decades for the U.S. will be its ability to sustain and encourage creativity and imagination within the agencies and companies that drive technological change, Darby told Morell. 

"There's a lot of distractions going on right now. And people are worrying about so many different things that they're not taking the time on a day-to-day basis to think what I would characterize as 'good thoughts,'" he said. 

"I think that could ultimately be our Achilles Heel."

For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Chris Darby, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to "Intelligence Matters" here.

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