Disrupting Spycraft: Always-On Surveillance Is Prompting Massive Changes In Covert Operations
from the move-fast-and-break-your-own-stuff dept
Last January, sources were telling Yahoo that it’s no longer enough to carry around a few fake documents to get past customs and engage in spycraft — not when the cover identities are bereft of the digital detritus generated by simply existing in a connected world. And it’s difficult to move about unobserved when every street light, business, and front porch has a camera attached to it, monitoring activity 24/7/365.
The report also noted that online access to a large variety of information also made it more difficult to engage in covert activities. Russian counterintelligence agents were apparently able to sniff out CIA agents working in US embassies by looking for things like prior postings in certain countries, pay bumps for hazardous work, or mismatches in salary for employees with similar titles. Some of this investigative work could be achieved by utilizing open source information gleaned from government sites and professional-oriented platforms like LinkedIn. Data from the massive Office of Personnel Management hack likely filled in the rest of the details.
It isn’t all losses, though. The same surveillance apparati that made it difficult for covert operatives to maintain cover also made it easier for them to track their targets. But the overall tone of the report was that undercover work needed to undergo an extensive overhaul or it would be rendered almost entirely useless.
It’s been almost two years since that report was released. Since then, surveillance tech has become even more ubiquitous, with governments and private citizens alike installing more cameras and monitoring other people’s movements and activities more frequently.
The complaints from agencies utilizing covert surveillance haven’t changed, though. What used to be extremely difficult is now almost impossible, according to this report from the Wall Street Journal. (alt. link here)
Operatives widely suspected of working for Israel’s Mossad spy service planned a stealthy operation to kill a Palestinian militant living in Dubai. The 2010 plan was a success except for the stealth part—closed-circuit cameras followed the team’s every move, even capturing them before and after they put on disguises.
In 2017, a suspected U.S. intelligence officer held a supposedly clandestine meeting with the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, days before the latter was assassinated. That encounter also became public knowledge, thanks to a hotel’s security camera footage.
Last December , it was Russia’s turn. Bellingcat, the investigative website, used phone and travel data to track three operatives from Moscow’s FSB intelligence service it said shadowed and then attempted to kill Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Bellingcat named the three. And published their photographs.
The CIA has its own issues, as the new director (William Burns) admitted during his February confirmation hearing. He said the CIA’s bread-and-butter covert work was “much more difficult” to perform but expressed confidence the agency would find some way to work around these millions of inconveniences.
If packing a bag with a handful of aliases and their corresponding paperwork no longer works in a world where every cover story needs to be backed by a fleshed-out online existence, the solution might be to do away with the fakery. Instead of adopting personas as needed, agents will be expected to exist as someone else — something that requires far more dedication and commitment than playing a small part for a few months or years to gather intelligence.
Crossing international borders under an assumed name is rapidly becoming yesteryear’s tradecraft, because of biometrics like facial recognition and iris scans, several former officials said.
“It’s more difficult for intelligence officers to masquerade under alias,” said a retired Western intelligence officer who estimated he had nine false identities during his career, and credit cards for each.
More spying will be done in “true name,” meaning the spy won’t pose as someone else, but “live their cover” as a businessperson, academic or other professional with no obvious connection to the U.S. government.
There will be no more coming in from the cold. Always-on surveillance is leading to always-on spycraft. Another alternative — one already in use — is the use of teams to perform covert work, with one handling the actual legwork while the rest of the team steers the operative clear of surveillance cameras in the area.
Something approaching schadenfreude comes from reading reports like these, where the early adopters and pioneers of surveillance tech are now realizing there’s too much surveillance tech standing between them and their work. Pervasive surveillance has made citizens around the world aware lives can no longer be lived largely unobserved. A wealth of personal data only clicks away makes anonymity almost impossible.
And there’s a layer of irony on top of the schadenfreude: the same governments that felt they needed thousands or millions of cameras to keep an eye on their citizens are finding out that massive surveillance systems are capable of exposing their own secrets to their adversaries. There’s no rolling it back, either. The difficulty level of covert human intelligence operations is only going to keep increasing.