Disrupting Spycraft: Always-On Surveillance Is Prompting Massive Changes In Covert Operations

from the move-fast-and-break-your-own-stuff dept

The spies are back to complaining that the always-on digital world and the omnipresence of surveillance devices (both public and private) is making it difficult to do spy stuff.

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.

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Comments on “Disrupting Spycraft: Always-On Surveillance Is Prompting Massive Changes In Covert Operations”

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18 Comments
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

People join the CIA imagining becoming James Bond, shooting, breaking in, getting assets out…

People discover that 99% of working for the CIA is looking at documents exfiled from computers detailing the data that was exfiled from the CIA servers about how they were able to exfil from one of their allies.

TL;DR – CIA discovers rest of the world no longer is fooled by swapping a white cowboy hat for your black cowboy hat & a press on mustache.

ECA (profile) says:

For all the privacy laws.

That were never enforced by our own gov.
For all the Protections WE WERE supposed to have. Your home computer probably has better protections, if any.
For all the things our gov. buried so we couldnt find How they were doing things, now its being used against them.

But a question. Why so much privacy for the people Not being enforced? So we can feel secure? So the banks and credit agencies, Which ARE NOT supposed to use identifying info Or our Social sec. Numbers.
There are 2 ways to have security. 1 is privacy, which if not enforced gets broken very quickly. The other is Public. Whre everything is out there, except its mixed up, missing parts, confusing as there are How many J. Doe? But for some odd reason, our gov. let EVERY corp use a special number the gov. gave us. And with that number its very easy to Match all the pieces to Who you are, where you live, and where you bank.
There have been so many Server/site break-ins that its Humorous to even think about.

The most entertaining part of all this comes with Proving you are a USA citizen. YOU CANT. As most policing agencies dont have much access. And 99% of all the data saved about you dont have a Picture. And until 2000, even DMV/DOT didnt keep your past pictures, Police computers in cars didnt have the ability.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: For all the privacy laws.

The most entertaining part of all this comes with Proving you are a USA citizen. YOU CANT.

You never could beat the ride.

The burden of proof for citizenship depends upon the venue in the US. For a passport? You do. In a criminal trial? The state does (assuming it is disputed.)

Proof of citizenship accepted by the state has historically depended on things other than photographs for many of those reasons you state.

And 99% of all the data saved about you dont have a Picture.

Well, to be honest, the picture on my birth certificate is years out of date…

Anonymous Coward says:

the solution might be to do away with the fakery.

Covert operation works until someone C’s you. Might as well drop the C and go with the overt….

Of course, you realize that this all is exacerbated by the various spy shops voting the "Leopards Eating People’s Faces" ticket. "When we pushed to have all this data retained, we didn’t expect that the other side’d be using it against US!"

Darkness Of Course (profile) says:

Interesting problem, but it's solved!

Just bid on ads for various people/agencies. Adtech corps are giving private data for free, regardless of their claims of protecting said data.

https://checkmyads.org/branded/magnite-is-100-on-track-to-undermine-our-next-u-s-election/

Pretty sure one can place losing bids on various suspects. Gets the data and doesn’t cost money.

Paul (profile) says:

Going dark in the bright light

So on the one hand we have the FBI complaining that criminals are becoming undetectable thanks to end-to-end encryption.

And on the other hand we have the CIA complaining that you can’t do anything without being videoed, logged and generally spied upon by everyone and everything.

Can we get them both in the same TV studio with an anchor who knows what they’re talking about?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Going dark in the bright light

The FBI has to work against private individuals, places, and communications.

The CIA has to work in plain sight. (I.e. In public.)

Of course cameras that are meant to record everything the public does will also catch the CIA agents among them. If they didn’t there would be one hell of a filter at play on the raw data streams worthy of a Nobel Prize.

Both issues can exist simultaneously, they affect completely different realms of surveillance.

As for the end of covert ops: Someone will eventually create that Nobel Prize winning filter. Maybe it will even be a privacy advocate, and when they do, covert ops will be still chugging along just as easily as it always has been. The biggest threat to a covert ops agent isn’t the overabundance of information. It’s the likelihood that their claimed past is considered plausible by a foreign agent. The CIA has a much bigger problem with corporate profiteering worldwide making their cover identities seem more well off than average, than they do from the abundance of surveillance cameras. After all a disgruntled layman is much more trustworthy to criminals than a rich above average person with more to lose if caught. By the same token, a foreign agent is much more likely to believe the "I’m a tourist" identity if the average person from their claimed country could reasonably afford a ticket to the target country on a whim. When the average person stops being able to afford things, the chances of an agent’s cover being blown skyrocket. As the back story now has to include the reasoning as to how they are able to afford their traveling in the first place despite their claimed identity. Which is dictated by the job at hand.

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