Spies in the Digital Age
By H. Keith Melton
The end of the Cold War has not brought about world peace; we have seen only the end of one conflict and the beginning of a new one. This new conflict is a global economic war in which spies and new technologies will again play an important role in determining the final victors.
Beginning in World War II and continuing throughout the Cold War, the world's major intelligence agencies (the CIA, KGB's First Chief Directorate, MI6, etc.) employed the latest technologies available in "collection," communication and analysis of information from abroad.
At the same time, counterintelligence agencies (the FBI, KGB's Second Chief Directorate, MI5, etc.) employed other technologies in efforts to identify and eliminate foreign spies at home. The new global economic warfare will see these basic roles continue, but with important changes in four major areas:
- The primary targets of spies for all intelligence services have shifted.
- The traditional roles of "friends and foes" continue to blur.
- New technologies are changing the traditional methods and techniques (called "tradecraft") by which spies operate.
- And the traditional tradecraft of spies are applied in new ways.
New targets for old spies
In the final days of the Cold War, the crumbling Soviet Union possessed the nuclear weapons to destroy the world but lacked the economic and informational infrastructure to compete as a world power. While the preeminent weapon for most of this century was the hydrogen bomb, it has been replaced by the awesome capability of a single electron! Future superpowers will be those nations with the greatest capability to harness the power of the electron for both economic and "digital" warfare.
The desire of foreign spies to uncover and obtain "military secrets" will continue, but with interesting variations. We are witnessing the migration of a national defensive infrastructure that has historically been based on "bullets" into one based upon "information." Success by spies targeting an opponent's "information" will ultimately prove more valuable.
Friend or foe?
The traditional Cold War alignment of the East vs. West is gone forever. Gen. Yuri Kobaladze of the SVR -- the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, successor to the First Chief Directorate of the KGB -- recently stated "there are friendly nations, but there are no friendly intelligence services".
Even at the height of Cold War solidarity (the enemy of my enemy is my friend), the major superpowers collected intelligence and attacked the ciphers, or codes, of our friends as well as our enemies. The national interests of former friends and foes are now being redefined in terms of competing economic interests.
Cultural and historic friendships between nations will continue to fade as they are replaced by trading partnerships and other interdependent economic relationships. The friend of my enemy may also be my friend -- if the price is right. Military alliances will be designed to protect, perpetuate and enhance underlying economic partnerships. The victors in global economic warfare will form regional economic alliances that will share information and together strengthen their collective -- and individual -- economic power.
New technologies for the digital spy
The tradition roles of spies in gathering, communicating and analyzing information (secrets), as well as counterintelligence, have been altered in ways never before imagined.
The advent of the "Keyhole" satellite program nearly 30 years ago provided the United States with the capability to digitally observe events on Earth in near "real time." Exponential advances in computer processing power have subsequently provided refinements that allow these "spies in the sky" to observe the Earth regardless of cloud cover, inclement weather and darkness. Using infrared cameras, radar and advanced sensing lenses, they can resolve images approaching a single inch in diameter. The strategic role of satellites will be tactically supplemented by small pilotless drone aircraft, with stealth masking, capable of remaining aloft for days at a time over hostile territory.
New "ears in space," sometimes officially designated as "weather or mapping" satellites, will continue to eavesdrop on all forms of communication signals transmitted into the ether. The increasing utilization of wireless frequencies for the transmission of telephone and computer data is absorbed into the antenna of these satellites and relayed to ground stations on Earth for analysis. Speech recognition software, new to the consumer market but utilized by intelligence agencies for more than 25 years, will employ artificial intelligence to "filter the unnecessary" and recover secrets being communicated by both friends and foes.
The transformation of the Internet into the "information highway" has forever changed the way in which information is gathered. CIA veteran Sherman Kent, author of "Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy," once observed 50 years ago that 90 percent of everything spies need to know is available openly. The Internet, as the library of world knowledge, has become the repository of information needed to fuel economies of the world's superpowers. The keys to this "fountain of knowledge" are high-speed Internet access, advanced networking to share information quickly, and massive computer power to analyze billions of bits of data to discover the secrets hidden inside.
Powerful Internet browsers and "agents" are even now traveling through cyberspace into the computers and networks of both the suspecting and unsuspecting to record their secrets. A clever computer programmer in the immediate future will unleash electron based "cyber-agents" to recover more vital information in a day than a thousand fictional James Bonds could recover in a lifetime.
Convicted KGB spy John Walker noted after his arrest that the defenses of the United States were constructed to protect against enemies from outside, not from the treachery of loyal Americans within. Purchasing secrets from traitors remains an effective and profitable mainstay of intelligence collection. A few million dollars invested in an intelligence program to recruit spies with access to important secrets may result in economic payoffs worth billions of dollars.
Hostile intelligence services traditionally relied on intuition and informants to identify persons for recruitment as spies. Excessive personal debt, substance abuse and failed careers were often the first indicators of weaknesses that could be used to leverage recruitments. Digital spies now have the advantage of processing computerized credit checks on the Internet to recover spending habits, debt loads, medical records, and job-change patterns to identify potential recruits. By using the Internet as a "spotting" tool, the efforts of intelligence services are focused on a small pool of potential recruits that have existing weaknesses waiting to be exploited.
Future intelligence services will venture further into international banking in a global world of commerce and interlocking financial relationships.
The most dangerous point of vulnerability for a spy operating in hostile territory was not when he was stealing secrets, but rather when he attempted to communicate them to his "handler." Public awareness of the "tradecraft" of the Cold War was often focused around the communication techniques of "brush passes," "car tosses" and "dead drops." Despite their sophistication and usefulness, they were vulnerable to an alert counterintelligence service and often confirmed the actions of the suspect being observed. In the United States, the arrests of naval spy John Walker in 1985 and Aldrich "Rick" Ames, a KGB "mole" inside the CIA, in 1994 were precipitated by their actions to communicate with their Soviet or Russian handlers.
The Internet has changed this vulnerability into an advantage for the spy. Spies now utilize the Internet to communicate with near impunity. Messages, information and signals are now transmitted in ways that appear innocuous but almost defy detection because they are interlaced into the normal and growing usage of the Internet. As information is transmitted or received into the Internet, its true recipient or sender may be masked in a bewildering variety of disguises. What once took days and weeks to communicate from a spy to his handler may now occur in milliseconds. Advanced encryption techniques may be utilized to additionally mask data that may later be imbedded into a digital scan, voice, music or television signal transmitted or received anywhere in the world. Even the world's most powerful computers lack the processing power to analyze trillions of bits of data for patterns to indicate possible imbedded messages.
The closest the world came to a true "Orwellian" state was in East Germany during height of the Cold War. Massive programs of the MfS (Ministry for state Security) aimed at opening and photographing foreign mail and recording hundreds of thousands of conversations and phone calls resulted in a sea of information that overwhelmed the human capabilities in place to transcribe and analyze the results. Even if a great secret had eventually been captured, the likelihood that it would be transcribed and analyzed in time to be useful was naught. Without modern computers and the resulting analysis, the entire East German state eventually swamped itself in a sea of information.
The analysts have long been the "unsung heroes" of the spy world. With little fanfare they accumulate bits of information from sources around the world and convert them into a useful intelligence product -- information needed by political and military leaders to make better decisions. More powerful computers, supplemented by artificial intelligence programs and neural networks, scan information from all sources to discern patterns and make predictions that defy human intuition. The resulting analysis may be a weather pattern and resulting grain harvest in a foreign country predicted years in advance. Though apparently innocuous, such vital economic information becomes part of the finished "intelligence product" and potentially shapes foreign policy.
Counterspies will be forced to adapt and accelerate the use of digital tools in an effort to catch foreign spies. Hostile services will resort to powerful neural networks and massive databases to analyze information about individuals to identify and apprehend foreign spies.
Imagine the difficulties in establishing "legend" and "cover" in the digital world. Traditional identity details such as address, profession, association membership, etc. are now subjected to a new level of scrutiny using the Internet. It was once sufficient for an "NOC" (Non-Official Cover), a CIA term for a representative working or traveling abroad without diplomatic immunity, to use a driver's license listing his home address, and a business card stating his profession to confirm his identity. However, such simple details can be quickly challenged by using the Internet to search local property tax records, voting records, professional association memberships, etc. Establishing an effective cover and legend now requires the investment of additional resources and planning in the digital age.
Old techniques with new applications
During World War II, the OSS (U.S. Office of Strategic Services) and SOE (British Special Operations Executive) coordinated resistance activities in occupied Europe to disrupt German communications, transportation and manufacturing. These daring individuals risked death to sabotage telephone poles, derail trains and delay the shipment of raw material to factories producing war materials.
In the new world of the digital spy, these same activities can be accomplished, at no personal risk, from a computer terminal thousands of miles away. By digitally sabotaging enemy computer networks, cyber-spies can accomplish the same result as their OSS and SOE predecessors. The vulnerability of the national information infrastructure of most countries -- the interlocking computer networks that regulate communication, commerce and defense -- make Pearl Harbor in 1941 appear well protected. At the same time, billions of dollars are being spent to shore up unprotected computer networks, and accelerated programs are being developed to exploit the computer networks of our enemies as we prepare for future "cyber wars."
Computer viruses have been developed and deployed that will be activated in time of war. Imagine the consequence of embedding a "Trojan horse" in the operating system software that runs 90 percent of the computers of both friends and foes. A "Trojan horse," once activated, can selectively disable the computer infrastructure of a hostile opponent and cripple its economy, communications and defense. The war is over before it has begun.
Assassination was once considered as a tool of warfare and tactically applied or attempted by some intelligence services during World War II. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc utilized assassination to silence exiles living abroad -- the KGB assassinations of Ukrainian exiles Rebet and Bandera in West Germany, as well as the infamous Bulgarian "umbrella assassination" of Georgy Markov in London.
In the digital world, however, potential targets of assassination have shifted. Even with the emphasis of advanced computer developments, all nations depend on imbedded computer chips of varying age -- sometimes decades old. These critically important components control the switching systems in power grids, telephone systems and transportation networks. The devastating effect of losing an antiquated but functioning system becomes a reality when the key person charged with its upkeep is eliminated. The result of assassinating a political leader pales when compared with the effect in future wars of eliminating key computer programmers and network specialists.
For professional intelligence services, their primary goal is, and will remain, the acquisition of information, not murder. Oleg Tsarev, a retired officer of the KGB's First Chief Directorate and author, accurately stated that "intelligence stops when you pick up a gun."
The new villains
Former CIA Director James Woolsey stated that with the end of the Cold War, the great Soviet dragon was slain. He wryly noted, however, that in its place the intelligence services of the United States are facing a "bewildering variety of poisonous snakes that have been let loose in a dark jungle; it may have been easier to watch the dragon."
The single greatest threat to world peace in the early part of the next century will be the utilization of weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, chemical, biological and digital -- by fundamentalist terrorist organizations. These groups are already using the Internet to:
- Recruit and communicate members with similar fundamentalist beliefs.
- Coordinate terrorist activities with other aligned groups that share interests in a common outcome.
- Raise money through computer based cyber-crime.
- Attack the national information infrastructures of hostile countries from thousands of miles away.
The CIA and other intelligence services must operate with shrinking budgets and manpower -- the CIA will shrink 25 percent from its peak -- but confront an array of new threats to national interests in different parts of the globe. To meet these challenges, all intelligence services will be forced to rely on digital solutions, massive computers and artificial intelligence in linked computer networks and databases to compensate for the reduction of people and resources.
The traditional world of spies exists now only in fiction. Those intelligence services that most effectively identify, develop and implement the tools and techniques of the "cyber-spy" will provide their citizens with an incalculable advantage going into the new century.
H. Keith Melton is a world-renowned expert on espionage and a member of the board of advisers of the National Historical Intelligence Museum in Washington D.C. A consultant to U.S. intelligence agencies on historical espionage equipment, he is the author of a number of acclaimed books on the subject, including "The Ultimate Spy Book."