Biometrics, smartphones, surveillance cameras being a spy is no longer so easy
WASHINGTON — In 2010, agents strongly suspected of working for the Mossad, the Israeli spy service, planned to carry out a covert operation to eliminate a Palestinian militant living in Dubai. The plan was a success, except for its secrecy: surveillance cameras had followed all the actions of the team members, even filming them before and after putting on their disguises.
In 2017, a suspected US intelligence agent met, supposedly clandestinely, with the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, days before the latter's assassination. This interview was also revealed publicly thanks to the images of the security cameras of a hotel.
Last December, it was the turn of the Russians to be trapped. Investigative site Bellingcat used phone and transport data to track three agents of the FSB, Moscow's intelligence service, who the outlet said followed and then attempted to kill Russian opponent Alexei Navalny. Bellingcat leaked the identities of the three people and even posted their photos.
Espionage and covert operations are definitely not what they used to be.
In the past, a CIA officer could cross borders with a wallet filled with false identities or travel calmly to foreign cities without being spotted to meet other agents there. Today, he has to deal with digital obstacles that are the prerogative of modern life: the omnipresence of surveillance cameras and the presence of biometric checks at borders, not to mention smartphones, watches and cars that constantly report their position. . Added to this is the “digital dust”, these personal traces that almost everyone leaves on the Internet.
Coupled with advances in artificial intelligence that can quickly sift through this data, these technologies are quickly becoming powerful tools for enemy nations to flush out spies, according to current and former US and Western intelligence officials.
"It's really daunting," says a former senior US counterintelligence official of the impact of these tools on US espionage operations. “This completely calls into question the fundamentals of the profession. »
“Pervasive technical surveillance,” as it is called, is now a major concern of the CIA. It forces him to design new processes, often more resource-intensive, to recruit agents and appropriate secret information, officials say.
In this new environment, it is "much more complicated to carry out the usual operations", admitted the director of the CIA, William Burns, during his confirmation hearing in February. “The agency, like so many other parts of the US administration, will have to adapt. “I am absolutely convinced that the women and men of the CIA are capable of it,” he added then.
In the Dubai affair, Israel has never confirmed or denied its involvement. The CIA declined to comment on its ties to the North Korean leader's half-brother. Finally, Russia denied poisoning Mr. Navalny.
Sophisticated technologies will also help US spy services gather intelligence and spot their adversaries, but give regimes an advantage, according to a January report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank. authoritarians like China and Russia, which can exercise greater control over the digital world.
CIA agents "will find it difficult to maintain cover and operate underground and will face a constant risk of being discovered - because of themselves, their collaborators and their operational techniques", indicates the report of the CSIS working group.
In an interview, a senior CIA official disputes the agency's shrinking operating space, and says it will mix traditional and new espionage techniques. “We go to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection of our agents and the sources we meet. »
"The humint [contraction of "human" and "intelligence"] is not dead, far from it," continues the official, using the term consecrated to designate human intelligence.
But other observers are less definitive.
“In my opinion, the foundations of espionage are being destroyed—and they have already been,” said Duyane Norman, a former CIA bureau chief who led the first project of the agency, called "Office of the Future", to adapt espionage to the digital age.
For example, he explains, how can a CIA agent claim to work for another government agency or a private company if his mobile phone is not regularly traceable on the site of this entity, if he does not Is there any trace of him making ATM withdrawals or paying for lunches with a credit card in the vicinity, and if there is no trace of him in the CCTV footage?
The fact of not having an electronic "signature" - that is to say, not having a mobile phone and not being present on the Internet - is in itself a clue to enemy spy services, point out Mr. Norman and others.
In a 2018 speech, Dawn Meyerriecks, who was then the CIA's deputy director for science and technology, said that in some 30 countries, foreign intelligence services no longer bother to physically track CIA agents "when they leave the place where they are employed", an obvious reference to American embassies. “Their coverage of surveillance cameras and wireless networks is good enough that they don't need them. »
Recently, a top-secret cable sent by counterintelligence officials from CIA headquarters to offices and bases around the world warned that a large number of the agency's informants in foreign countries were being arrested. , according to knowledgeable officials. He implied that the operating environment had become more difficult for American spies abroad, in part because of the ubiquity of digital surveillance. This communication was first disclosed by The New York Times.
Intelligence officials, citing operational secrecy, refuse to detail how these surveillance assets can compromise CIA missions—and how the agency adapts—especially when used by governments Chinese, Russians and Iranians.
But they draw the outlines of what espionage might look like in the future.
Crossing borders under a false name is becoming a thing of the past because of biometrics (facial recognition and iris scanning), according to several former officials.
“It is now more difficult for intelligence agents to hide under a false identity,” says a retired Western agent who explains that he has used nine aliases during his career, each with dedicated credit cards.
Espionage will henceforth be done more in "real name": the agent will no longer pretend to be someone else, but will be covered by a profession, such as a businessman or an academic, with no obvious link with the US government.
Moscow and Beijing have sent "massive numbers" of these new intelligence gatherers around the world, says former US counterintelligence chief William Evanina. When asked if the United States intends to do the same, he replies: “If you think so, you have a good chance of being right. »
Espionage is also increasingly becoming a team sport. It used to be that a lone spy could plan and carry out an operation—meeting an agent, recovering hidden documents. In the future, helping the agent thwart digital surveillance will require working in a group.
In her 2018 speech, Ms Meyerriecks described how, as an experiment, a CIA team mapped surveillance cameras in the capital of an enemy power, detailing the types of cameras used and the direction each was pointed. . Using artificial intelligence, the team determined an unsupervised route that a CIA agent could take.
Depending on the operations on their computers, the CIA agents based at headquarters can thus indicate to the field spy, equipped with a smartwatch, whether he is in the “green” zone – without digital surveillance –, yellow or red.
But this type of operation requires more time and human resources.
We are more in a Mission Impossible than in a James Bond, and that "involves fewer operations, in the end" because it is enough to rely on a smaller group of foreign people recruited to spy on behalf of the States States, details Mr. Norman. “That way you're going to focus your energy a lot more on a few important people. »
There are also countless digital schemes to engage in what Evanina calls “the tech version of the game of cat and mouse.” For example, it's possible to 'falsify' a cellphone's location, tricking foreign spies into thinking their prey is in one place but safe in another, according to current and former leaders of the CIA.
Officials say the CIA, which turns 75 next year, has faced and overcome daunting technological challenges in the past. In 1980s Cold War-era Moscow, it was long thought impossible for the agency to recruit and meet Soviets working for the CIA under the nose of the KGB. A former bureau chief and his colleagues had devised innovative devices—including short-range communication and disguise—that allowed the agency to capitalize on intelligence provided by one of the most valuable Soviet spies in the Cold War, Adolf Tolkachev.
“Most technological challenges are surmountable,” assures the senior CIA official. We know how to attack very well, and we don't sit idly by in a defensive position. »
Translated from the original English version