The old method of espionage has become obsolete, says an expert. The culprit is technology.

WASHINGTON – The decades-old CIA spy model has been overtaken by technology, according to a former CIA officer who investigated the matter for the agency.

“The very idea of ​​a cadre scattered around the world of undercover officers operating in the shadows, away from prying eyes, is obsolete,” said Duyane Norman, who retired in 2019 after a career 27-year-old at the CIA which included a special project examining the future of espionage.

This week, a cable sent to CIA personnel, first reported by The New York Times, raised concerns about whether the CIA had done enough to protect informants it recruits in foreign countries.

The agency’s counterintelligence chief’s cable has examined dozens of cases in which CIA sources have been arrested or executed, The Times reported, and urged officers to focus more on the safety of those that they convince to spy. The CIA declined to comment on the cable, which NBC News did not see.

For Norman, the devastating penetrations of CIA spy networks in recent years were not primarily about incompetence or inattention. Instead, he believes they were the logical result of a technological revolution that makes it nearly impossible to maintain false identities and disguise relationships.

Norman’s opinion that the CIA’s traditional model of human intelligence cannot survive the digital age is an aberration among his current and former colleagues, but almost everyone agrees that social media , cell phones, facial recognition technology, and supercomputers that process big data have made espionage much more difficult.

Some of the cases that would have been examined in the cable have been made public. NBC News reported in 2018, for example, that up to 20 CIA informants were executed after China compromised a secret communications system the CIA was using to speak to sources, with the help of a CIA renegade recruited to spy for China.

This is not a new problem. Over the years, the agency has lost many sources in Iran, US officials said, and a number of CIA assets have been compromised in Lebanon ten years ago, thanks in part to cell phone geolocation analysis that enabled Hezbollah spy hunters to identify people meeting US agents. In Milan, an Italian prosecutor was able to identify CIA agents who kidnapped a cleric by sifting through cellphone recordings.

The main culprit, according to Norman, is technology. Everyone spits “digital dust” that reveals key facts about their movements, lifestyles and associations. And the number of data-spitting sensors – phones and cars, thermostats and smartwatches – is increasing year by year.

The idea that CIA agents could continue to masquerade as diplomats during the day and go out at night to meet and recruit sources using false names – without those agents ultimately being exposed – is dubious, said Norman.

One example is obvious: How can an American who grew up posting thousands of photos of herself on social media operate in China under a pseudonym, when the Chinese government has a network of surveillance cameras scanning with facial recognition?

But it goes beyond the use of false names. If a CIA officer is posted overseas claiming to be a business executive or diplomat, this previously required detailed support, including false documents and people answering the phone and confirming coverage. Now a lot more is needed. An opposing intelligence service is able to paint a picture of that person’s movements and associations and can detect any deviation. If he chooses to leave his phone at home, that can also be revealing.

“You have to fundamentally reinvent the business,” Norman said. “If you are in the auto industry and you base the future on a better fossil fuel engine, then you have fundamentally missed the mark in the direction the auto industry is taking.”

Many current and former intelligence officials counter that digital dust can be usurped and that no one is better than the US services at using cyber tools to advance human espionage.

A senior intelligence official pushed back the catastrophic scenario.

“The landscape presents challenges, of course, but with those challenges also come opportunities,” the official told NBC News. “Human intelligence is very much alive. “

Norman does not dispute the competence of the American intelligence agencies. But he doesn’t think American hackers can keep up with the explosion of sensors and surveillance, especially with the advent of 5G networks and the so-called Internet of Things, which will usher in a dizzying number of new web-related devices. .

“The number of digital data points on your activities is increasing exponentially every year,” Norman said. “You can’t stand in front of this.”

The House and Senate intelligence oversight committees have grappled with these issues for years, congressional officials told NBC News. And while few go so far as to say Norman that the collection of human intelligence such as the CIA has done is over, many people think it needs a major rethink.

“Humint is not dead, but you have to be a lot more careful,” former CIA Director John Brennan said.

But even painstaking operations have been exposed by the technology.

In 2010, a senior Hamas operative named Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was found dead in his room in a Dubai hotel.

It took Dubai police less than a month to expose what they called an Israeli intelligence conspiracy to assassinate him and to assemble videos of suspected Mossad officers as they entered the city. hotel. CCTV footage helped police establish an accurate timeline and publish photos of dozens of suspected Israeli agents.

“This entire Israeli team used what we would have considered a solid profession,” Norman said. So, he said, the Russian team that attempted to poison a former Russian intelligence officer in Britain in 2018.

But this operation was exposed, not by a foreign intelligence operation, but by Bellingcat, a private group focused on open source intelligence.

So what should replace the old model? Norman says he doesn’t have perfect answers, but he thinks there must be some level of intelligence gathering by US companies operating overseas. This has been happening since the CIA has existed, but making it a centerpiece of human intelligence would be deeply controversial.

Norman isn’t the only one, however, who believes there needs to be a fundamental change.

“The US intelligence community needs a radical reimagining to be successful in this new era,” wrote Amy Ziegart, senior researcher at the Hoover Institution, recently. “In the past, the benefit came from the theft of secrets. Secrets still matter, but the benefit increasingly comes from the exploitation of open information accessible to all and human thought, augmented by machines, who can sift through huge treasures of data to find hidden patterns. “

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