There Is No 'Going Dark:' Always-On Surveillance Posing Risks To US Covert Operations

from the it's-so-dark-we-can-barely-hide-anyone-in-here dept

The FBI and DOJ like to complain everything is "going dark." It isn't. The only thing that's still dark here is the FBI's FISA powers and the true number of encrypted devices in the FBI's possession.

It's the Golden Age of Surveillance. The FBI knows this. The FBI knows this because the federal government as a whole knows this. There is no "going dark." And that's going to hurt the government almost as much as its going to hurt its citizens.

A long report by Jenna McLaughlin and Zach Dorfman details the government's worries about the seeming impossibility of maintaining its own darkness. Between state-sponsored attacks on government databases and the omnipresence of surveillance equipment around the world, it's exceedingly difficult to call anything "covert."

The OPM hack is only the tip of the exposure iceberg. But what a magnificent tip it is.

In one previously unreported incident, around the time of the OPM hack, senior intelligence officials realized that the Kremlin was quickly able to identify new CIA officers in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow — likely based on the differences in pay between diplomats, details on past service in “hardship” posts, speedy promotions and other digital clues, say four former intelligence officials.

Foreign operatives are safer at home and not just for the obvious reason. For all the surveillance creep this country has experienced following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, it still lags far, far behind the efforts deployed elsewhere in the world. The Department of Defense warned against self-inflicted privacy wounds when it sent a letter to service members warning them of the risk of over-the-counter DNA testing kits. But what can the government do to protect the identities of foreign agents who are under constant surveillance the moment they set foot in another country?

Those concerns spread to other places, like London, where CCTV cameras are omnipresent, and the United Arab Emirates, where facial recognition is ubiquitous at the airport. Today there are “about 30 countries” where CIA officers are no longer followed on the way to meetings because local governments no longer see the need, given that surveillance in those countries is so pervasive…

The DHS wants biometric scanning at every airport. Despite recent setbacks, it hasn't lost its desire to add American citizens and US residents to the list of people facing mandatory biometric collection every time they fly. Maybe it just wants to be on even footing with the rest of the world.

Even with the expansion of biometric surveillance, the CIA has ways of working around this. For years, the CIA has formed partnerships with foreign governments that allow the CIA to access the passport system to track people it wants to track while simultaneously allowing it to manipulate the system to "insert" operatives into countries without being hassled by customs officials or being tracked by airport security surveillance systems.

So ubiquitous are cameras and other surveillance efforts in other countries, spies are bringing back the old ways. If everything leaves a digital footprint, perhaps the solution is to stop leaving footprints.

By the early 2010s, Chinese intelligence operatives started adopting old-school Russian-style tradecraft, like dead drops in the woods or “brush passes,” which involve surreptitiously exchanging objects in a public place, says one former senior intelligence official. “It was unheard of for the Chinese,” says this person. “The conclusion was that they felt the world was too digital and traceable.”

Spies are also taking their business to new countries -- formerly seldom-used locations where surveillance isn't as pervasive. Operations still need to be carried out in the country they're targeting, but meeting with sources can take place anywhere. Anywhere with fewer cameras, biometric scanners, and government control of travel-related businesses is a plus.

Entire programs meant to make covert operations function in the digital age feasible have been scrapped. One effort died on the vine, starved to death by CIA resistance and chronic under-funding. Another program tasked with giving FBI agents credible backstories suffered the same fate: choked to death by red tape and apparently compromised by the sloppiness of the same agents and sources it was put in place to protect.

But it's not all bad news -- at least not for the government. Citizens have no (legal) access to these amenities, but the government has all kinds of "backdoors" in systems to try to prevent covert operatives from being immediately discovered.

By midway through the Obama administration, the CIA and FBI were creating “extensive digital legends with increasing sophistication,” as one former senior official puts it, with cooperation from key government agencies like the Social Security Administration, Health and Human Services and the IRS.

U.S. intelligence agencies also work with “friendly digital companies,” like commercially available ancestry databases, to alter personally identifying information, say former officials, and also backdate work histories.

This is how spy craft works now. Everything is online, digitized, and likely to be accessed by agents of enemy states. There's no flying under the digital radar. And if it's true for government employees, it's doubly true for US citizens who don't have the ability to alter/remove collected data or a network of security professionals doing whatever they can to protect them (and their data) from outsiders.

If the FBI (and others) are making this much effort to shield covert personnel from a panopticon constructed by government entities and private companies, it can't honestly say criminals have the upper hand just because of device encryption.

Filed Under: always on surveillance, covert operators, espionage, going dark, surveillance

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2020 @ 11:36am

    surely, no government of a democratic country should have the ability or the desire to surveill it's citizens. and considering we're talking about the USA atm, why was the War of Independence fought? why did the citizens of America/United Colonies/New England decide that fighting was their only option? wasn't that to try to get out from under the oppressiveness of what was then England? that being the case, why is the USA heading so fast back to those days where the freedom fought for is taken away? where privacy is more a pipe dream now? is the governments we have duly elected so afraid of being found to be nothing but self centered, self-serving, money grabbing liars? those who want to keep us completely in the dark as far as what they are doing, want to know every solitary thing about us! how can that, by any stretch of the imagination, be called 'Freedom'? it seems more like a return to slavery to me!

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