The nature of intelligence hasn’t changed from the time Sun Tzu wrote the last chapter of his Art of War on “Espionage” in the 6th century AD and remained the same up until the beginning of the 20th century. Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi method of managing his spy network in his war to unify China did not differ from the way Napoleon managed his spies across Europe. For around 2000 years, espionage occurred using the same methods; spies would collect information, spread misleading propaganda news, or provide false advice to opponents. The 5 types of spies detailed by Sun Tzu are as Local, Internal, Double, Dead and Alive spies, all of which depending on the same principle: disguise and changing identity.
Espionage was only significantly impacted by the industrial revolution, arms developments, and material technologies. Adding to that was the advancement in telecommunication with the invention of codes, radio and wireless communication, and other tools commonly used in the First World War, which is the first modern war in history. Those tools were considered the first Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), a term that started to be used in 1970s in the USSR, referring to a leap in the mode and tools of war due to technological change.
War has become like video games, completely dependent on closed-circuit communication, sensors, network bandwidth, and surveillance. This revolution permeated the functions of armed forces referred to as C4ISR, meaning Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance.
Since the first decade of this century, with the war on terrorism, and the entrance of the terrorist and with the entry of jihadist groups into the electronic space as an arena of conflict with the major powers, strategic studies started to talk about Revolution in Intelligence Affairs (RIA) which has moved espionage, the second oldest profession in the world, from the ‘dark secret alleys’ to the open area of electronic space.
The shift from human intelligence to cyber intelligence
Human intelligence (HumInt) depended basically on techniques that put a high value on the human element (the spy). So, it meant having skill at hiding identity, deception of opponent, and recruiting “resources”, in order to collect sensitive information that impact decision making, which makes intelligence different from other information; or conducting subversive operations inside the enemy’s organizations through “planting spies” or recruiting officials of the opponent, or maybe assisting in assassinations of figures that represent a threat to the spy’s country. Such secrecy is what has given espionage a semi-mythical character, with a focus on the individual “hero”, which inspired famous dramatizations of the intelligence world.
But now, digital communication and artificial intelligence technologies have come to compete with the human element, with a shift towards cyber intelligence through the following tools:
- Facial recognition: spies are no longer able to disguise or use false documents, since countries are using identity recognition technologies through face scanning based on analyzing the “big data” they have about every person in the world. This technology was invented in Israel, and has been widely used especially in countries like China, which seeks to control anything that moves inside their borders, making it very difficult for an American spy to move freely in the streets of any Chinese city without being identified by authorities, with intelligence and knowledge on his personal history.
- Biometrics: such as hand, eye, or sound scanning, which have come to be widely used in travel measures. This has put strong restrictions to the movement of intelligence agents, who, even if managed to forge an identity, cannot easily change these metrics.
- Social media: there are millions of photos and a lot of data exchanged across social media platform such as, Facebook, and Twitter, etc., which represent a big opportunity to feed big databases and improve the efficiency of algorithms used by companies. Moreover, it has become rare for intelligence bodies to find a potential recruit who does not have an account on such platforms, making them a “burnt” card because they will be easily identified and their movements, preferences, buying behavior, and even their attitudes will be easily known.
- Open source intelligence (OSINT): secret information was of highest value in the realm of intelligence, but with availability of data, this rule has changed, and algorithms have become more focused on open source intelligence, such non-secret information available to the public, being the most available and common and the easiest to access, instead of the secret and problematic information.
These developments and other developments do no mean that the role of the human element in intelligence has ended. For it’s inconceivable that the US and Israel, for instance, could manage to assassinate their opponents, such as, Bin Laden and Qassim Soleimani, without an assistance by a human element. However, the role of the human element, be it a recruit or an analyst, is being redefined. In fact, the prevalence of communication technologies, such as smartphones, has made everybody a material for spying, and even a project of a spy, even if they are not aware of it.
How did the technological revolution in intelligence impact the realm of intelligence in general?
In addition to redefining “intelligence” and “information”, this technological revolution leads to deeper regulatory and legal, and maybe ethical, changes in the world of intelligence of politics. Mainly, such consequences include:
- An overlap in the boundaries between espionage done by countries and that which is done by private companies has appeared. The above-mentioned technological changes have led private companies to develop tracking, analysis, and hacking programs, with countries becoming “clients” to those companies. There is even a turnover of the human element between the two parties, where former intelligence officers join security and espionage companies, widening the expertise and influence capacity of these companies. In this context, Israel is one of the premier countries in which private security companies serve the purposes of the Israeli government regionally and internationally.
- Regulatory speaking, official intelligence services have now to rethink their static hierarchical structures which are based on official bureaucratic organizations, integrating technology with traditional intelligence work and redefining the role of the human element in this work.
- Largely, success in intelligence is longer contingent to a human element’s shrewdness and mental abilities, but to the advancement of the expertise and tools they use to penetrate the opponent’s data, or to protect their own data. This means that future success in this realm will rest in the hands of the parties who invest in “Research and Development”. Thus, the balance in “intelligence” power will remain in favor of the international powers capable of blinding their opponents through cryptography, such as the United States, China, Russia, Israel, Britain, and other countries in possession of such tools.
- The world of digital espionage has become more “chaotic”. Traditionally, for instance, the legal definition of spying behaviors has been sharply distinct from “acts of war”. Now, behaviors of reconnaissance and exploration through penetration of the computer networks of an opponent, or even an “ally”, can be treated as a form of declaration of war. Also, the realm of current human or traditional espionage has ethical “rules” or “conventions” acknowledged between countries and intelligence services (such as, the elimination of retired spies or agreement on not disclosing their identity or not harming their families). Such rules haven’t been established for cyber intelligence, at least thus far.
- Related to this chaos and absence of secrecy of intelligence practices, there are arising legal debates about the work of intelligence services, especially in the liberal democracies where “privacy” and human rights are central to the legal system. The source of such debates is increasing public control over the works of such services and the conflict between its works in the cyber space with “respecting the privacy” of citizens. This was the core of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. Even the traditional intelligence work that is based on planting individuals and forging identity data has become a matter of legal and ethical debate. For example, there is a legal debate over faking personalities of dead children and using them to spy. In this regard, as indicated by some Western observers, closed countries with authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, China, and Iran, have become more efficient in using human and cyber espionage tools with no regard to the legal and ethical debates.
What are the features of the intelligence technological revolution in the Middle East?
The intelligence technological revolution clearly reflects in the “balance of power” between nations in the Middle East. With regional powers, such as Israel and Iran, developing their cyber capabilities, most of the Arab countries have become prone to “espionage” and “subversion” due to their lack of the ability to develop tools of high efficiency in fighting espionage operations. Some Arab countries even depend on surveillance and tracking tools produced by companies working in the private sector of cyber intelligence. This means that the balance of power will remain in favor of the “producers of espionage technology”, not consumers.
From 2015, Israel has successfully transformed into a first-class cyber espionage power, by readjusting its three intelligence services, Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence), Mossad (foreign intelligence) and Shabak (Israel Security Agency/internal security), to adapt with the changes happening in the world of espionage, the deep troubles in the Arab World, the Arab revolutions, as well as the Iranian expansion.
An example are the departments of human, signals, and imagery intelligence inside the military intelligence which have become able to directly communicate through closed circuits, using shared databases, without returning to the leadership hierarchy of the military intelligence department. Mossad has become more embracing of the tools of cyber wars, which was made clear in its attack on Iran’s nuclear reactors by the Stuxnet virus in 2010. Shabak also integrated cyber security units to signals intelligence to protect Israeli infrastructure facilities.
However, Israel’s most powerful parties in cyber espionage are private intelligence companies, mainly the NSO group, which was established in 2010, which also owns Pegasus software used in tracking and spying. Black Cube, which was established in 2010, and which specializes in assisting countries track wealth and money, with a scope extending from Europe to Latin America; and Archimedes focuses on social media websites and carries out campaigns to influence public opinions on these websites by using tactics of fake identities and accounts. Most of the founders and employees of these companies are former spies and officers in signals espionage units 8200 inside the army or from Mossad or Shabak.
Iran, on the other hand, launched many electronic spying and subversion campaigns on the United States and its regional opponents in particular the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Before the strike on Aramco’s facilities in 2019, Tehran launched hacking campaigns on Aramco’s facilities in 2012 through “malware” which damaged some of the Aramco’s data, repeated between November 2016 to January 2017 and included a wide range targets. Tehran has also targeted banks and companies in the United States and Israel, known as Operation Ababeel, in response to Israeli and American electronic subversive attempts against Iran’s nuclear program in 2007, known as the Olympics. Iran is classified as a “third class” cyber power, as Iran does not possess the same tools and software used by the United States, China, and Russia.
Yet, Iran proved to be capable of developing local tools and using the strategy of electronic “proxies” inside and abroad. Reports indicate that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Basij, and Passive Defense Organization coordinate with each other to launch online attacks under a higher authority of senior military and intelligence leadership, with the three organizations depending on over 120,000 volunteers in the field of electronic war.
In cyber espionage, the Arab countries, perhaps excluding the UAE, are an open wide field to their opponents, whether Israel, Iran, or even their allies such as the United States. In this regard, Tehran seems to pose less of a danger than Tel Aviv. While the former’s cyber activity is limited to ‘undermining” or “subversive” operations, which can be detected either by anti-espionage agencies or cyber security departments in Arab security services, or those of their allies, especially the United States; the latter seeks to establish its dominance over the core of Arab national security through “penetration” disguised as overt or covert security cooperation.
In order to protect themselves from cyber espionage, Arab countries will have to:
- Deal seriously with the threat of the Israeli danger to its cyber security.
- Reorganize and restructure their security and intelligence departments so that they can adapt to the shifts of cyber security, which means rethinking their focus on human intelligence and requalifying their human element to adapt to the cyber espionage tools.
- Invest in Research and Development (R&D) programs necessary to develop software required to maintain their national security and the security of their citizens, and to address electronic espionage operations.
- Most importantly in this regard is that Arab countries need to shift from consumption of espionage programs and services provided by Israeli and Western companies to production of their own programs and tools, thus changing or balancing the power balance.