Intelligence Collection: The Trade Is Changing

Intelligence Collection: The Trade Is Changing

In the intelligence studies, a debate is raging about the impact of new technologies; has the trade of intelligence collection fundamentally transformed now that we live in an information age, or not?

Ever since Edward Snowden revealed how Western intelligence and security services operate in the digital domain, commentators, practitioners, and academics alike have asked whether intelligence practices are fundamentally changing or not.

Some have seen in the ‘democratization’ of intelligence the cause of an entire new field of play, with new rules, new players, and thus a different game. In that sense, we are told, ‘the trade’ – the techniques used to gather intelligence – has changed markedly: we now live in an information age, in which big data and social media intelligence transform Signals Intelligence(SIGINT) and Human Intelligence (HUMINT) at its core. Others argue, that despite the changing face of it, at heart intelligence collection seems to revolve around the same principles. Disinformation might now be spread through Facebook and by Twitter trolls, but it is still disinformation, a phenomenon that has been around forever. What is more, hostile intelligence services still use ‘illegals’ who still seem to use one-time pads and short-wave radio transmissions.

This raises the question whether the intelligence collection disciplines have truly adapted to an environment that has fundamentally changed – or should veritably do so – orwhether this is old wine in new bottles.

Most authors agree on the fact that the 21stcentury has seen profound changes in the global security architecture. Punctuated by 9/11, there has been an emergence of new threats and new actors, with terrorism becoming the main security concern. This, alongside rapid technological developments and new global governance norms in democracies, has had far-reaching effects on the Intelligence Community that has had to adapt to this new security environment, its new roles within national security, and the wider global changes. It is argued that as a result, intelligence tradecraft, and most notably intelligence collection, has undergone significant changes.

"Have the intelligence collection disciplines have truly adapted to an environment that has fundamentally changed or whether this is old wine in new bottles?"

First, the changing digital environment and the technological innovations are said to be transforming the intelligence industry. Collection disciplines such as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT), and Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) have become central to intelligence collection. The rise of OSINT and SOCMINT , in particular, have expanded the sheer amount of data that is easily accessible. One could assume this is ideal for intelligence agencies; however, they now face the risk of information overload, collecting a volume of information that can be difficult to process and analyze, and thus losing important intelligence within this ‘noise’.

This technological revolution has also impacted HUMINT tradecraft. Not only does it create an entirely new operational environment – one now has to create digital personae on social media or discussion forums – but there is also significant concern that cover identities may not hold up in this new digitally-enabled environment. Just think of the complications that biometrics adds to the creation of cover identities.

In the societal sphere, there has recently been an increase in debates about oversight and accountability of intelligence and security services. This is linked in large part to the rise of new technologies enabling mass-surveillance and various leaks pertaining to these technologies, for instance the Snowden leaks. Privacy has come to the forefront of citizen concerns, and it is becoming increasingly unthinkable to have wholly secretive intelligence agencies.

These changes seem to be profound and far-reaching, but there also exists doubt about their extent and the actual effects they have had on intelligence agencies. While OSINT is now estimated to constitute up to 95% of all useful intelligence, one can wonder whether intelligence collection has truly been revolutionized, or if whether it is simply a shift in balance among INTs? There has undeniably been a boom in the reliance on OSINT, but other collection methods are still critical. The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has publicly emphasized her agency’s need to recruit more foreign spies in order to be capable of addressing changing threats. Furthermore, despite the changing face of it, at heart intelligence collection seems to revolve around the same principles. The CIA considers the classical collection discipline, that of HUMINT, still as one of the means to gather information that is impossible to get through other means.

Therefore, it remains to be yet seen whether ‘the trade’, the tricks in the book, the hard work and peculiar expertise of collecting intelligence has fundamentally changed, or whether it is only the looks of it that have.

If you are interested in hearing more about it, the Netherlands Intelligence Studies Associationis organizing a conference on this theme on 21 November 2019 in The Hague. Please see more details here.