CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

The NSA Is Warning AI Startups: ‘China Is Coming For You’

In congressional testimony, intelligence leaders describe highlight China’s artificial-intelligence ambitions.

The National Security Agency is telling U.S. tech companies to beware Chinese attempts to steal their AI technology, while the Pentagon’s intelligence chief is warning about what China might do with the new tools.

“We think much about the ability of what AI is going to do for us in the future. One of the things that we have communicated very clearly to a number of the U.S. companies is the importance of securing the intellectual property that you have invested within this. This type of capability because this will be a target of our adversaries,” Gen. Paul Nakasone told the House Armed Services cyber and intelligence subcommittee on Thursday. 

While the head of the NSA and Cyber Command didn’t mention China by name, he didn’t have to. Like his predecessors, Nakasone frequently describes China as the top nation-state threat to U.S. intellectual property. 

The world has been captivated by the rise of new public-facing large language model artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT, which can provide complex, human-like answers to a wide number of prompts. These generative pretrained transformers have proven widely useful for everything from writing research papers and recipes to finding Chinese weather balloons. But many of them achieve their miraculous effects by simply pulling information off of the open internet—information that is not always correct. Additionally, as much as 11 percent of the data that employees put into ChatGPT and other new AI engines to get answers is proprietary or confidential, according to a recent analysis from software company Cyberhaven

Intelligence agencies will have to be cautious in employing such models and be certain of the providence of the data that feeds them, Ronald Moultrie, defense undersecretary for intelligence, told lawmakers. But the intelligence community also has to be more attuned to how adversaries might use similar AI engines to corrupt open-source data or create disinformation. 

“We know our adversaries are considering or already thinking about large data models if you will, and how they may use that against us, Moultrie said. “Our...being able to identify when something is actually an AI-generated outcome is something that's gonna be very important to us, too.”

The Chinese government is spending heavily to become the world leader in AI by 2030. 

At Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., asked whether China had more to gain from the recent wave of AI developments than the United States. 

“Seems like now that the genie is out of the bottle, it's less of an advantage to us than it will be to our adversaries, who are so far behind us that it lets them catch up to us more quickly,” Jackson said. “It’s an incremental gain for us, but it may be an exponential game for our adversaries.” 

Answered Moultrie: “​​I think we can talk more about that in closed session.”