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For James Bond, the mission is less possible

James Bond, with gun
Photo: Greg Williams/Eon Productions/Getty

The age of surveillance and Big Data is throwing up a new challenge to one of the oldest professions on the planet. We are talking the job of secret agent.

What's happening: Suddenly, the world's least-open nations can marshal a lifetime of personal and location data on friend and foe from security cameras, social media, and smart phones. This seriously complicates the mission of undercover spy — men and women whose talent since Cleopatra and before has been gaining cozy proximity with movers and shakers and persuading locals to betray their country.

"If you go through any classic of spy fiction — le Carré, Fleming — almost anything they do would be impossible today because of technology," said Edward Lucas, a Russia specialist and author of "Spycraft Rebooted: How Technology is Changing Espionage." "CCTV cameras make anything that Bond and Smiley did difficult. In a hostile environment, you'd be picked up immediately."

I queried former U.S. intelligence analysts, all of whom said the secrecy profession will survive:

  • Mathew Burrows, a retired senior CIA official and counselor to the National Intelligence Council, said the new tech actually provides advantages, not just handicaps. There will continue to be a job for "a spy who can worm him/herself into the confidence of a decision-maker and know exactly his/her next move that hasn’t yet been revealed by any tech-driven spying," he said.
  • Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst in Iraq, said, "Intelligence gathering is as old as human civilization, and it's not going to end because of technical advances. No gizmo can see into the hearts of men. 

But, in a long new post at Foreign Policy, Lucas catalogues the difficulties:

  • Counter-intelligence agents in authoritarian systems like China and Russia are able in near real-time to identify, target and follow foreign visitors. Clues such as where someone goes, and where they have lived, are discernible by following their smart phone and perusing their social media.
  • It can be immediately apparent whether someone really is a graduate student or a mining executive, two possible covers.
  • "You can't operate under an alias anymore," Lucas tells me.

If Lucas is right, it's not clear how many jobs are at risk. There are no public figures for how many spies the U.S. sends abroad, though in a January speech, CIA director Gina Haspel said she wants more of them.

As of last year, Russia was thought to have more than 100 spies working undercover in the U.S. But working is more difficult even for those operating under aliases in open societies where people are not tracked as a matter of course.

One example:

  • A year ago, former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the U.K. with Novichok, a nerve agent. But U.K. investigators perusing footage from security cameras installed around the country quickly zeroed in on two men.
  • They were filmed putting the poison on the Skripals front door, then flying to Moscow. The men entered the U.K. using aliases.
  • Then Bellingcat, a private research group that uses open sources, was able in a matter of months to specifically identify them as Russian military intelligence officers. Bellingcat said they were Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, and gave a detailed accounting of their biographies. Their cover may now be blown forever.

If you are a suddenly out-of-work spy, where do you go? There can be much mysterious cachet to listing "CIA operative" on one's resume. Lucas suggests that former spies can pile into the private intelligence firms that have proliferated in New York and the Mayfair district in London.

  • Yes and no: I contacted the head of one such London firm, an acquaintance from my Central Asia days. He said that while he does employ two former intelligence agents — one from MI6 and the other MI5 — the rest of his approximately 30 case managers are varied.
  • "In the private sector you want multiple talents/skill sets — forensics accountants, former bankers and journalists, Caspian oil and gas specialists (!) etc," he said.

Go deeper: The spycraft revolution