Alex through the looking-glass

Alex Younger (right), the head of MI6, and his European counterparts Germany's BND President Bruno Kahl (centre) and France's DGSE chief Bernard Ernie (left), met in public for the first time today (pictured) to stress the necessity of their close ties

Old school intelligence collection still matters in a digital world

THE spy business is rooted in traditions. Sir Mansfield Cumming, the founder of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6), wrote in green ink. “C”, the real-life head of the foreign-intelligence agency, continues this quirky rite, even in emails. Technology is upending established practices in James Bond’s industry. Some spooks think online spying is the future and the flipped-collared alleyway whispers of human intelligence should be bumped off.

But old spies die hard. On February 16th, gurning for the cameras at the Munich Security Conference, the head of MI6, Alex Younger, posed with Bernard Emie and Bruno Kahl (respectively the heads of the French and German intelligence agencies; the DGSE and BND). Each had their reasons for stepping out of the shadows. Britain is a net exporter of intelligence to the EU; Mr Younger’s instructions were to dispel fears of Britain killing off post-Brexit cooperation. Mr Kahl hoped to improve his agency’s reputation with a sceptical German public. A less enthusiastic Mr Emie could not afford to be left out. An off-the-record chat with assembled journalists, bureaucrats and politicians added to the air of unreality.

The unprecedented display was more than Brexit window dressing, according to Gabi Siboni of the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. Alliances, whilst important, are not everything. (Israel has cooperated with Egypt, Jordan, Australia and Saudi Arabia on intelligence matters without formal arrangements.) Humans are the critical feature, Mr Siboni believes. “You have to trust your agents if you want to make them whistle,” he says, “and that cannot be done with a computer.”

Meeting face to face though, is fraught with danger. Digital footprints are hard to conceal and working under assumed identities is almost impossible. Spies risk being exposed by their wider network, a threat known as digital contagion. Better to stay well away then, say proponents of cyber-spying. Distance has the added benefit of deniability. Autocratic regimes often close down internet infrastructure to snuff out grass-roots movements. Hosting proxy servers in disagreeable states enables opposition groups to organise via social media, whilst obfuscating the source of such help. Political influence can be wielded from afar. The power is in the mystery, says one former spy.

But a big problem for cyber-spies is that it is easy to lose the cultural context. Witness the failure on social media of the American government’s “Think Again Turn Away” initiative. In seeking to challenge jihadist ideology online, the State Department instead provided extremists a platform and conferred legitimacy on their hate-filled messages with gaffe-prone tweets and missed cultural cues.

Ultimately though, spying is about providing options to politicians. When the smoke clears, is the intelligence used wisely? Apparently not always. GCHQ, Britain’s signals-intelligence agency, is based in Cheltenham. Residents of the town, an old joke goes, are either spies or cheese-makers. The agency’s cyber-capabilities were seen as an easy option for people who didn’t want to make a decision, says a non-cheese-making native of the town. “They would say ‘should I bomb this place or just do a cyber-attack?’”

But there is no point spying if governments will not act, according to a former MI6 officer. “If you were a nuclear scientist in Iran today,” he asks, ”why risk your life-and your family-spying for Britain, if the country is not prepared to do anything with your information?” Mr Bond lives on, just, and is posing for photographs. But he may not be the man of action he once was.


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