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james bond

The search for information, normally known as espionage, is made of two concurrent and competing approaches: classical spying and technological information gathering. The first approach, HUMINT (Human Intelligence), is conducted by agents on the field: they contact people, recruit sources and, ultimately, rely on informants.

Instead, technology can count on a series of technical tools: SIGINT (Signal intelligence, that intercepts anything in the air, like radio or telephone transmissions), ELINT (Electronic intelligence, which includes computers and other devices), IMINT (Imagery intelligence, that relies on satellite or aerial videos and photos). Rapid technological developments have pushed several countries to rely more and more on technology as its main source of information, neglecting classical espionage.

There are also other reasons that push agencies to opt for technological intelligence.

The risk factor

It is less dangerous to sit behind a console than to have an agent on the field in a foreign country, possibly during a civil war or in a hostile environment. The agent physically puts his life on line. He or she risks being uncovered by the local counterespionage. And if he or she is found, diplomatic problems follow, because espionage is a hostile activity that can have a great impact on bilateral relations with other countries.

The time factor

Infiltrating an agent in a foreign country and giving him a cover that allows him to operate requires time. Sure, agents can use the cover of a diplomatic mission and this can facilitate their task. Having a diplomatic status automatically gives the agent a reason to be where he is. This is a technique most intelligence agencies use because, among others, it offers a clear advantage: the diplomatic status protects the agent. Apart from the aforementioned diplomatic consequences, if he is exposed, he runs the risk of being expelled rather than arrested. Furthermore, if needed, he can be easily replaced. The only drawback is that everyone knows agents pose as diplomats and this will attract the attention of local intelligence agencies.

There are also other ways to infiltrate an agent that require more time. First, he/she needs a front: a company working abroad or a delegation visiting a nation (the so-called “legal travelers”). In order not to catch the attention of the local counterespionage, the cover story needs to be legitimate and credible. And this takes time and effort.

Sometimes intelligence agencies choose to use state-owned enterprises, like most national airlines. This is another widely employed front and hardly a durable cover. Most of the countries in Eastern Europe employ this expedient. An airline representative or a station manager that monitors all boarding, disembarking operations, loading and unloading of airplanes can move freely because of their role. In addition, they can contact people without being noticed and monitor anything that happens inside an airport.


The time factor to recruit informers

Any agent that works abroad needs some time to begin operating. He needs to blend into the social texture of the country; he needs to make new friends and find sources that will help him gather news of interest to him. It’s a PR world that requires a good amount of time to consolidate relationships. Actually, the longer an agent operates in a country, the wider his contacts and the deeper his relations will be.

Only a limited number of intelligence agencies, such as the Russian’s, are capable of building identities for their agents and provide them with a wide array of covers abroad. Furthermore, they are in sleep for a number of years before being activated as an asset for espionage.

The data from technological spying

As mentioned earlier, technological spying has the indisputable advantage of being fast and limited only by technical tools. The agent is a mere technician; this implies that anything he is capable of acquiring depends solely on the quality of the tools he is employing. His activities are ongoing, and a wide range of different pieces of data are obtained. He doesn’t need a cover, nor does he have to conceal is actions in fear of being exposed, nor does he risk being arrested or eliminated. Zero risks.

Too much data

When all radio and telephone conversations around the globe are monitored, as do the Americans alongside the other English-speaking countries, the issue is how to distinguish what is useful, from what is not. The problem is not information gathering, but its selection. And while it’s relatively simple to use technology to obtain data, it’s not that easy to spot the right one. This is the main issue the NSA is currently facing. Sometimes key words are used, or geographical areas are defined, or a certain number of sources selected, yet the problem remains.

The time a HUMINT agent requires to become effective are similar to the time needed to select technologically-acquired news. Raw data that needs to be transformed into news, real data with information value.

Contextualizing news

Data gathered by technological tools is aseptic, it is not influence by the social context of where it is produced, nor does it fall into a context. It is soulless and arid data. The technician collecting it is not emotionally involved; he receives so much data in such a short time span that he is often incapable of immediately appreciating its relevance. He collects data and hands it over for analysis. His only relationship he entertains is with his console. All he sees is data and no information. He is a mere technician.


The difference between an agent and a technician

When a piece of information is gathered by an agent on the field from one of his sources, given his background, he is immediately capable of distinguishing where the data is relevant or not. He is the first analyst of himself and can evaluate the reliability of his source based on how the information was communicated to him, from the reactions of his counterpart. He doesn’t only share data, but also pieces of information. And can also immediately spot disinformation efforts.

The data he acquires is put into context, something a technician in front of a machine miles away cannot do. In other words, any data collected through HUMINT is enriched by a series of details that color its importance, meaning and reliability.

The experience of the CIA

For a certain period, the CIA tossed HUMINT aside, with dire consequences on its operations. During the Second Gulf War, the 800 or so CIA agents that were in Baghdad could not walk out of the Green Zone because their did not have adequate covers and had been spotted. The security restrictions imposed by the agency blocked any chance of operating. One of the rare cases of a contact with a local informant turned into a trap; luckily the agent came out alive. Basically the entire Second Gulf War played out without adequate US HUMINT on the ground.

At the same time, the US were intercepting every telephone conversation; after all a US company was offering the service in Iraq. The enemy’s radio signals were tapped, but there was no HUMINT follow up on the ground. And that massive amount of data was not able to prevent attacks, IEDs or the rise of terrorism. This intelligence failure was the result of the presumption that technology could replace HUMINT. Following this experience, the CIA learned from its mistakes and went back to getting its men on the ground.

A balanced mix

Classical espionage and technological data gathering need each other to produce information. They don’t replace each other, but integrate one another. Technology cannot replace human relationships and the informations they produce. Although it is difficult to measure them on a scale of effectiveness, the quality of the data gathered by classical espionage is superior. Less data, more information.

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