In the recent past, Ian Fleming’s James Bond-as-the-protagonist movies were responsible to make spying a component of thrilling entertainment. Even today to many, spying is analogous to James Bond’s thrillers. But spying or espionage has played a very instrumental role in the history of national defence and is still very much alive. It is not dead but it has taken a form that is different from what we have conceived as spying. Even though cold war is considered to be over by historians, the after effects still ripple across both the superpowers.
In 2010, a network of Russian spies- who were claimed to have involved in money laundering– were arrested by Washington. Their job was to identify insiders from the government who could be turned into potential informers for Kremlin later and the 8 member network was accused of carrying out operations on behalf of SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation. Even though the diplomatic relationship between the old foes have been considered to be improved, it hasn’t really and both the countries have been continuing to spy each other, says Peter Earnest, director of the Spy Museum in Washington, as reported by Newsweek.
Everything evolves and so did espionage. The history of espionage dates back to the Old Testament in which twelve spies were said to have entered the Promised Land along with Joshua and Caleb. Espionage has been in practice in the Roman and Greek empires, discussed in Egyptian hieroglyphs, ancient Chinese and Indian texts. As time rolled on, the need for information to protect boundaries and interests led to advanced intelligence gathering through the periods of French revolution, industrialization, colonialism and cyber era. Anyhow, most of the modern day espionage is focused on tracking extremist activities by monitoring public communication online and through telephones. The modern case can be more aptly called as cyber espionage.
The National Surveillance Agency (NSA) was accused by Edward Snowden during this intelligence gathering operation when telephone records of millions of Americans were tapped and monitored. The servers of nine internet firms including Facebook were said to have directly tapped by NSA through Prism, the name of the surveillance program, to monitor any suspicious activities that could tip-off any major plots by extremists.
Post 9/11, there are 1271 government organizations, and around 1931 private firms working across 10,000 locations in the United States on surveillance programs. US also spies on countries including Iran, North Korea and China while China carries out hundreds of cyber attacks targeting the US to steal data. Even there was a case of the former US Intelligence analyst, Jonathan Jay Pollard who was convicted of selling secret information of the US to Israel and was jailed for 23 years. Even allies spy at each other.
Businesses that are worth billions of dollars also get involved in knowing clandestinely what their allies or competitors do for their business interests. In 1712, the methods to manufacture Chinese porcelain was made known to Europe by a French Jesuit Priest. This is often considered as the first case of industrial espionage. Thereafter, there have been many cases of competitive intelligence gathering. In January 2010, Google announced that its Chinese operations were targeted by operators from within the country to access data about human right activists.
It is even said that huge business deals are never made without any act of spying by large corporations to know the positions of competing investors and other deal makers. These business corporations employ intelligence firms that are run by ex-intelligence officials from CIA, MI5 and KGB. The CIA has a policy that allows its analysts to moonlight their service to large business corporations. Even governments can target and monitor foreign firms to collect information.
Not described as an act of war, espionage has always been considered as an undesired act even when it is done in person during ancient times. The complexity of spying done today make it more riskier and threatening. Cyber warfare between the US and China is fast moving towards its brink that leads to more political animosities. What lies ahead in future for espionage with the advent of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented realities, is astounding and its consequences can be devastating.
Image Source: Bloomberg