Inside the Mind of Former CIA Intelligence Officer Peter Warmka

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When it comes to the future of cybersecurity, Peter Warmka, former CIA senior intelligence officer and founder of the Counterintelligence Institute, is increasingly concerned about significant threats related to human hacking.

Currently dominated by human threat actors, Warmka foresees a future in the next 10-15 years where androids will be developed, deployed, and controlled to target humans.

Looking ahead, androids will eventually be able to simulate human behavior, making them superior to human hackers, according to Warmka.

However, unlike humans, these androids will be tireless and have connectivity to an endless supply of information, which they can exploit instantaneously.

While androids will be able to detect, understand, and “express” human emotions, they will not be vulnerable to these feelings themselves. In essence, they will become super masters of manipulation and formidable adversaries.

About Peter Warmka

Peter Warmka is a former senior intelligence officer with the CIA, having more than 20 years of experience breaching the security of target organizations overseas.

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He is an adjunct professor at Webster University’s Masters in Cybersecurity Program and founder of the Orlando, Florida-based firm Counterintelligence Institute LLC. He is also the author of the non-fiction books “Confessions of a CIA Spy – The Art of Human Hacking” and “Why Are You Messing with Me? – Senior Survival Guide on Fraud, Privacy, and Security.”

Warmka is passionate about using his expertise to help city, state, and federal government entities, nonprofits, academic institutions, private companies, and individuals safeguard their sensitive proprietary and personal data.

From the CIA to the Private Sector

Q: What motivated you to join the CIA and later transition to cybersecurity?

A: There were several motivations for pursuing a career with the CIA. The main attraction was an opportunity to live and work overseas, where I would develop a greater appreciation and understanding of various cultures and foreign languages. I also believed that it would be a way to serve my country.

Finally, I was intrigued by the world of espionage. Upon retiring, I wanted to pursue a second career in corporate intelligence and security, where I could leverage many of the skills I learned and refined during my 23 years with the CIA. Having no technical background, I initially did not consider a path in cybersecurity.

Q: How did your experience at the CIA prepare you for a career in cybersecurity?

A: Several years into my second career, Webster University approached me to teach a course on intelligence and counterintelligence within their Master of Cybersecurity program.

I soon discovered that more than 90% of successful data breaches are initiated by some form of social engineering, also known as human hacking. That was my “aha” moment.

I spent more than 20 years with the CIA, successfully using human hacking to target and manipulate insiders to breach the security of the organizations they worked for in pursuit of foreign intelligence.

Q: On your website, you have a blog post titled: “How to Spot a CIA Impersonator.” Is this really a thing? Why do people impersonate CIA officers? What’s in it for them? How do we protect ourselves against these impersonators?

A: For as long as the CIA has existed, there have been people who have impersonated working for the organization. [Doing so] facilitates the impersonators’ development of fraudulent schemes when approaching their intended victims. They will claim to have inside connections [and can facilitate] investment opportunities.

Their targets will tend to trust what they are told and understand that their discussions need to be maintained with the highest discretion and secrecy.

In addition to the anticipated high rate of return on their investments, victims are intrigued by what they perceive as indirect participation in sensitive operations. Ultimately, the con artists are discovered and prosecuted, leaving a trail of victims.

Intelligence Techniques and Cybersecurity Practices

Q: How do intelligence techniques apply to modern cybersecurity practices?

A: Within the realm of intelligence is HUMINT — intelligence gathered or facilitated through human sources. While much of this information was previously stored in paper files, such information is today produced and stored in the digital world.

However, to get at this digital information spies must still exploit humans who have access to the network.

With a clear understanding of the methodologies utilized by intelligence services, criminal groups, industrial competitors, and other threat actors, I decided to focus on helping organizations understand and defend themselves against attempts to steal their data.

We refer to this defensive strategy as counterintelligence. For this reason, I established the Counterintelligence Institute, working with clients throughout the U.S. and in several foreign countries.

Q: How can organizations leverage intelligence to enhance their cybersecurity postures?

A: My initial focus with each client organization is to help identify the various threat actors that could target them as well as their objectives. To protect an organization’s high-value assets, it’s important to identify vulnerabilities that can be exploited by such threat actors.

Phase I research includes the collection of publicly available information referred to as “open-source intelligence.”

Organizations are frequently unaware of the amount of information leakage made available through their websites, social media pages, press releases, job offerings, etc., that can readily be exploited by human hackers.

This includes identifying potential insider candidates and developing a personality assessment profile based upon an analysis of their social media profiles. The assessment identifies various motivations and vulnerabilities that are leveraged in human hacking approaches.

AI and the Spying Game

Q: How is artificial intelligence changing the spying game?

A: artificial intelligence is already having a huge impact on espionage, and we are only beginning to experience the tip of the iceberg. Intelligence officers are experiencing increasing challenges in being able to travel and work covertly in foreign countries. Artificial intelligence can be leveraged to expose their true identities.

The increasing exploitation of biometric technologies, combined with advanced analytics, make it nearly impossible to operate below the radar for any extended period of time. One case in point is in China where facial recognition technology is widely deployed against the civilian population.

Once an intelligence officer’s identity documentation and facial biometric parameters are collected at any major transportation hub, they can be picked out of a crowd for close and continuous monitoring. The use of silicon masks and other disguise features as seen in the “Mission: Impossible” movies is already becoming a reality.

Q: How are threat actors using artificial intelligence in human hacking scams?

A: Traditionally, threat actors would have spent considerable time collecting targeting information utilized for the design of their attacks. Now, with such tools as ChatGPT, this research can be reduced from days down to minutes.

And platforms such as ChatGPT can also be leveraged to formulate very professional-looking and manipulate narratives used in advanced phishing attacks as well as in the creation of fake social media profiles.

In addition to the narrative, artificial intelligence and generative AI can also be exploited to create fake images, fake videos, and voice cloning.

These tools allow fraudsters to increase trust and deception in their outreach to targets, whether through email, text, social media direct messaging, and/or by telephone. As a result, we are already seeing an increase in the quantity and quality of human hacking attempts.

Cybersecurity Today and Tomorrow

Q: What are the biggest cybersecurity threats facing the U.S., individuals, as well as public and private companies today? How do individuals and organizations become targets? How can we protect ourselves?

A: The vast majority of the cybersecurity attacks focus on breaching the networks of organizations to obtain access to data. Once breached, the information may be stolen by a threat actor for their own use, held captive in a ransomware attack, or offered for sale on the dark web. Data offered for sale typically includes personal identifiable information (PII) that is exploited by fraudsters to conduct identity theft.

While it’s very important to limit the amount of personal information that we post online and maximize privacy settings on our social media accounts, almost everyone has already had their PII compromised through one or more data breaches.

Therefore, we need to always be on the defensive when approached by someone who could be targeting us for malicious purposes.

Q: What do you think the future holds for cybersecurity?

A: Advances in cybersecurity will continue to accompany the evolution of technology. Within my area of focus, I fear significant and growing threats related to human hacking.

While it continues to be dominated by human threat actors, I envision the day within the next 10-15 years when androids will be developed, deployed, and controlled by threat actors to target humans.

We are already experiencing an incredible evolution in robotics fully mimicking human motor skills, e.g., “Atlas” from Boston Dynamics, as well as the demonstration of human cognitive skills, e.g., “Ameca” developed by Engineered Arts.

Eventually, androids will be able to simulate human behavior, making them superior to human hackers. Compared to humans, who will have limited brain power and are subject to fatigue, these androids will be tireless and have connectivity with an endless supply of information that can be exploited instantaneously.

They will easily be able to read human emotion through sensors focused on a target’s breathing, pulse, blood pressure, facial micro-expressions, and speech analysis. They will be able to detect and understand human emotions. While they will be able to “express” the same emotions, they will not personally fall vulnerable to any such feelings. In other words, a potentially super master of manipulation and dangerous adversary.

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Linda Rosencrance
Technology journalist
Linda Rosencrance
Technology journalist

Linda Rosencrance is a freelance writer and editor based in the Boston area, with expertise ranging from AI and machine learning to cybersecurity and DevOps. She has been covering IT topics since 1999 as an investigative reporter working for several newspapers in the Boston metro area.  Before joining Techopedia in 2022, her articles have appeared in TechTarget, MSDynamicsworld.com, TechBeacon, IoT World Today, Computerworld, CIO magazine, and many other publications. She also writes white papers, case studies, ebooks, and blog posts for many corporate clients, interviewing key players, including CIOs, CISOs, and other C-suite execs.