Saturday, January 18, 2020

Ben Macintyre: World Of The Digital Footprint Leaves Spies With Nowhere To Run

Ben Macintyre (seen in the below photo), author The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, and A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, as well as other fine books on espionage, writes about how the spy game has changed in today’s digital world in his London Times column.

The essence of espionage is concealment: since classical times spies have relied on being able to hide their identities and thus slip from one jurisdiction to another using a different identity, fake papers, a false history. The spy has no name, and many names.

Not any more. In the digital world of continual interconnected surveillance, facial recognition and ubiquitous CCTV, where every computer keystroke leaves a digital fingerprint and our lives are recorded online, it is becoming ever harder to hide an identity. This is a problem for terrorists and criminals but also for spies.

The two principal branches of intelligence-gathering are signals intelligence (Sigint), intercepting exchanges of information via technology ranging from wartime wireless messages to modern day texts and emails; and human intelligence (Humint), information gathered from, and by, individuals. The flood of Sigint in the modern age is a direct threat to Humint, and changing the very nature of espionage.

Intelligence officers have traditionally been sent abroad to operate under diplomatic cover. In 2014 the computers of the US Office of Personnel Management were penetrated by hackers believed to be working for China, and the employment data of 22 million former and serving civil servants, including intelligence officers, were stolen. At a stroke the hackers had exposed the identities of CIA personnel around the world and details of their lives, postings, pensions and pay rises.

Undercover intelligence officers (“legals”) are only one species of spy. Far more numerous are those operating under non-official cover (known as NOCs, or illegals), undercover agents posing as private citizens, businessmen, journalists, extremists, criminals and others, gathering information on the ground. These are also increasingly exposed, since digital sleuthing offers extensive opportunities to check when an identity is real. An absence of online footprints is likely to arouse suspicion.

… In December the US military sent out a memo advising all personnel to avoid using consumer DNA kits, since these might leave permanent digital identifiers. James Bond never bothered about the DNA he left around on his martini glasses: today that DNA could be compared to a signature in a commercial DNA database, or that of a relative, immediately proving that 007 is not who he claims to be.

Even though signals intelligence has expanded hugely (GCHQ, the signals branch, is now the biggest spy agency in Britain), human intelligence remains vitally important. Digital information can be falsified, obscured, deleted and encrypted. The most valuable espionage asset is still a spy on the ground, with direct access to, and the skills to assess the value of, secret information.

One of the best recent examples of the importance, and liability, of human intelligence was the case of Oleg Smolenkov (seen in the above photo), a CIA asset inside the Russian government who supplied high-grade intelligence from within the Kremlin. Smolenkov was exfiltrated in 2017 but he was swiftly found by reporters in the US, who tracked his digital trace. In the same way, the name and address of Sergei Skripal, the MI6 double agent targeted by Russian assassins in 2018, appeared on the Salisbury electoral roll.

You can read the rest of the column via the below link: 

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