Biometrics, smartphones, surveillance cameras pose new obstacles for US spies



  • U.S., rivals seek ways to adapt spycraft to a changing world; being on the grid can blow your cover, but so can staying off

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.

Espionage and covert action aren’t what they used to be.

A trained CIA case officer could once cross borders with a wallet full of aliases or confidently travel through foreign cities undetected to meet agents. Now, he or she faces digital obstacles that are the hallmarks of modern life: omnipresent surveillance cameras and biometric border controls, not to mention smartphones, watches and automobiles that constantly ping out their location. Then there is “digital dust," the personal record almost everyone leaves across the internet.

Combined with advances in artificial intelligence that allow rapid sifting of this data, the technologies are fast becoming powerful tools for foreign adversaries to root out spies, according to current and former U.S. and Western intelligence officials.

“It’s really bad," a former top U.S. counterintelligence official said of the impact on U.S. espionage operations. “It really challenges the fundamental assumptions and approach of how you do business."

“Ubiquitous technical surveillance," as it is known, is now a pervasive concern at the CIA, forcing it to devise new, often more resource-intensive ways of recruiting agents and stealing secrets, the officials said.

In the new environment, it is “much more complicated to conduct traditional tradecraft," CIA Director William Burns acknowledged during his February confirmation hearing. “The agency, like so many other parts of the U.S. government, is going to have to adapt." He added: “I’m entirely confident that the women and men of CIA are capable of that."

In the Dubai case, Israel has never confirmed or denied its involvement. The CIA has declined to comment on its ties to the North Korean leader’s half brother. Russia has denied poisoning Mr. Navalny.

A January report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said that while advanced digital technologies will also help U.S. spy agencies gather intelligence and spot adversaries, the advantage lies with authoritarian societies like China and Russia that can exert greater control over them.

CIA officers “will struggle to maintain cover and operate clandestinely and face a persistent risk of exposure—of themselves, their agents, and their operational tradecraft," said the report by a CSIS task force.

In an interview, a senior CIA official disputed suggestions that the agency’s operating space is shrinking, and said it would employ both new and traditional spy tradecraft. “We go to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection of our officers, and the sources we are meeting."

“Humint isn’t dead, not by a long shot," the official said, using the acronym for human intelligence.

Others aren’t so sure.

“The foundational elements of espionage, I argue, have been shattered—they have already been broken," said Duyane Norman, a former CIA station chief who led an early agency effort to adapt spying for the digital age, called “Station of the Future."

As an example, he asks, how can a CIA officer purport to work for another government agency or private enterprise if his cellphone isn’t regularly present at that entity’s location, there is no record of him making ATM withdrawals or paying for lunch with a credit card in the vicinity, and no sign of him on video cameras there?

Having no electronic “signature"—as in not carrying a cellphone and having no presence on the internet—is itself a tipoff to adversary spy services, Mr. Norman and others said.

In a 2018 speech, Dawn Meyerriecks, who was then deputy CIA director for Science & Technology, said that in about 30 countries, foreign intelligence services no longer bother to physically follow agency officers “when we leave our place of employ," an apparent reference to U.S. embassies. “The coverage is good enough that they don’t need to. Between CCTVs and wireless infrastructure."

A recent top secret cable from counterintelligence officials at CIA’s headquarters to stations and bases world-wide warned that a large number of agency informants in foreign countries were being captured, according to officials familiar with its contents. The cable suggested a more difficult operating environment for U.S. spies abroad, in part as a result of pervasive digital surveillance. It was first reported by the New York Times.

Intelligence officials, citing operational secrecy, declined to discuss further details of how such surveillance in the hands of Chinese, Russian, Iranian and other governments potentially crimps the CIA’s mission—or how the agency is responding.

But they offered outlines of what the future of spying might look like.

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.

Moscow and Beijing have sent “a massive influx" of what are known as nontraditional intelligence collectors abroad globally, said former U.S. counterintelligence chief William Evanina. Asked if the U.S. would do likewise, he replied: “That would be a great presumption on your part."

Spying is also becoming more of a team sport. Where once a lone spy conceived and conducted an operation—meeting an agent, retrieving cached documents—in the future, it will require a group to help watch for digital surveillance and guide the CIA officer around it.

Ms. Meyerriecks in her 2018 speech described how, as a test, a CIA team compiled a map of surveillance cameras in the capital of a U.S. adversary she didn’t name, along with the type of camera and the direction each was pointed. Using artificial intelligence, the team plotted a surveillance-free route that a CIA officer could travel.

While headquarters colleagues monitor over a computer dashboard, the CIA officer on the street might wear a smartwatch telling her if she is “green"—free of digital surveillance—yellow, or red.

These undertakings require more time, personnel and other resources.

It is more “Mission Impossible" than James Bond, and “implies fewer operations, total" with a smaller pool of foreigners recruited to spy for the U.S., said Mr. Norman. “You’re going to spend a lot more energy working on the few that are important."

There are also endless digital tricks to play in what Mr. Evanina called “the technological version of cat and mouse." For example, it is possible to “spoof" a cellphone’s location, misleading foreign spycatchers to think their quarry is in one place, when he is safely in another, current and former CIA officials said.

The officials say the CIA, which turns 75 next year, has faced and overcome profound technological challenges before. In Cold War-era Moscow of the 1980s, it was long assumed the agency couldn't recruit and meet Soviet spies under the KGB’s nose. A former station chief and his colleagues devised ways, including new methods of short-range communications with agents and of disguise, and the agency during that period was able to run one of the most valuable Soviet spies of the Cold War, Adolf Tolkachev.

“Most technological challenges are surmountable," the senior CIA official said. “We play great offense, and aren’t sitting around in a defensive crouch."


This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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