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[FYI] Spies in the Digital Age


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19 January 1999. Thanks to Anon. 


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 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. 

Gathering information 

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


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

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

++ 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

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

  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." 

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