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For someone with a deeply scientific job, Gil Herrera has a nearly mystical mandate: Look into the future and then shape it, at the level of strange quantum physics and inextricable math theorems, to the advantage of the United States.

Herrera is the newly minted leader of the National Security Agency’s Research Directorate. The directorate, like the rest of the NSA, has a dual mission: secure American systems and spy on the rest of the world. The budget is classified, a secret among secrets, but the NSA is one of the world’s largest spy agencies by any measure and Herrera’s directorate is the entire US intelligence community’s biggest in-house research and development arm. The directorate must come up with solutions to problems that are not yet real, in a world that doesn’t yet exist. 

In his first interview since getting the job, Herrera lays out the tech—and threats—his group will now be focusing on. His priorities show how much the NSA’s targets are changing, balancing its work surveilling terror groups with an appreciation of how rapidly the geopolitical landscape has shifted in recent years. And he explains why the rise of new technologies, in terms of both threat and opportunity, are at the heart of what his group must contend with.

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