Spying much harder, says CIA director, due to smartphones et al- 9to5Mac

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Traditional spying is much harder in a world of smartphones, ubiquitous CCTV, and other “digital dust,” according to CIA director William Burns, a view backed by many current and former intelligence officials.

In particular, it’s much harder for a spy to establish a convincing false identity in another country …

The WSJ reports.

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 […]

“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 the new environment, it is “much more complicated to conduct traditional tradecraft,” CIA Director William Burns acknowledged during his February confirmation hearing.

Then deputy CIA director for Science & Technology Dawn Meyerriecks gave one example back in 2018 of how traditional spying has changed.

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.”

If CIA spies want to impersonate someone else, they will essentially have to live that person’s life, said one former spy.

“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.

But both Burns and other experts say that the CIA will adapt.

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

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.

Photo: Craig Whitehead/Unsplash

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