I’ve written here on many occasions about the impact that our rapidly developing technology has had and is having on our privacy and the security of our personal information. Recently, the Economist had an interesting short article exploring another aspect of these changes: the effect of technological change on the business of spying.
If you are in the spying business, your attitude toward technology, as the article points out, probably depends a lot on what sort of spy you are.
DEPENDING on what kind of spy you are, you either love technology or hate it. For intelligence-gatherers whose work is based on bugging and eavesdropping, life has never been better.
Obviously, for folks like the spooks at the National Security Agency, or at GCHQ in the UK, technology is generally a great boon. For example, in the not too distant past, eavesdropping on someone’s telephone calls required that a physical electrical connection be made to his phone line, perhaps outside his house or in the telephone company central office. With cellular and cordless phones, the signals can just be sniffed out of the air. The cellular provider may claim, honestly, that the signals are encrypted, but the security record of these systems is not good. (For example, see my post earlier this year on the cracking of DECT encryption.)
For the more old-fashioned kind of spy, though — the kind pursuing human intelligence with his or her feet on the ground — technology has made life a lot harder. Once, a common method of developing a false identity was to start from the authentic birth certificate of a child that had died in infancy, and add a few plausible supporting documents.
Creating false identities used to be easy: an intelligence officer setting off on a job would take a scuffed passport, a wallet with a couple of credit cards, a driving licence and some family snaps.
In a world based on paper records, untangling even a moderately complex false trail took time and a lot of legwork. Today, with so much information about us available online, the task of creating a convincing back story, or “legend”, has become much harder; and checking on someone’s background has become something that can be done, in large part, sitting at one’s desk. (This is sort of the flip side of the increased ease of identity theft.)
The article suggests that the future days of the classic “deep cover” spy are numbered. More likely is the use of “real people”, in an age where people routinely move about the world much more than they used to. Espionage may go back to being a game for amateurs and free-lancers, rather than a professional career.