The Spycraft Revolution
As modern life is being reshaped by technological, political, legal, social, and commercial changes, so is one of the world’s oldest professions, namely that of being a spy. According to Edward Lucas of the Economist, global changes are forcing the intelligence community to face various challenges such as:
- The balance of power in the spy world is shifting because espionage has become easier for authoritarian states like China, Iran, and Russia, and more difficult for democratic countries where the legitimacy of espionage operations is being questioned to a larger extent than ever before as citizens are becoming more aware and increasingly protective of their privacy.
- Technological advancements have made technical knowledge and skills far more important for successful espionage operations than in the past. In this context, countries with the most advanced espionage technologies, such as United States, United Kingdom, France, Israel, China, and Russia, have an increasing advantage over countries that cannot be considered a “cryptographic superpower.”
- The mobile phone is a game-changer that has made it very easy to spy on people, but incredibly difficult to create cover identities for spies that can withstand extensive scrutiny from suspicious actors.
- The growing importance of digital espionage operations is blurring the lines between espionage and warfare, since it is often hard to distinguish between cyber espionage operations and cyber attacks.
- The private intelligence sector is becoming increasingly important, as governments outsource operations to intelligence officials that have retired from the public sector. This is further undermining the public legitimacy of espionage in open societies.
- In the digital era, the proliferation of computers, smartphones and other devices that can be used for spycraft, together with the rise of social media, have decreased the cost of cyber espionage operations. As a result, people in charge of security at organizations need to adopt the mindset of counterintelligence operations.
- The “agonizing slowness” of the security clearance industry in the US and other countries” is “hampering the recruitment of useful people (such as the multilingual children of immigrants) and letting through liabilities (such as Edward Snowden),” Lucas believes.
- Weary of public scrutiny, intelligence agencies in open societies are overly secretive about their operations. This does not protect them from their adversaries and actually undermines the effectiveness of their efforts. This only benefits spies of authoritarian states since they don’t have to worry much about running into trouble if they break some rules.
Lucas fears that in the coming years, the trend toward excessive caution by intelligence agencies in open societies could be reversed in countries under active threat from hostile influence operations (like Australia with China and Ukraine with Russia). Rather than acting with excessive prudence out of fear of public scrutiny, intelligence agencies in such countries may become overly intrusive in the face of a growing foreign threat and start relying too much on “intelligence-led criminal justice sanctions and regulatory sanctions” such as arrests, asset freezes, deportations and bans of media outlets.
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