Why computers may never replace human spies

April 14, 2016
U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Edward Lin, a native of Taiwan, speaks about his path to American citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in Honolulu, Hawaii, in this U.S. Navy handout photo taken December 3, 2008. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st class Sarah Murphy/Handout via Reuters

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Edward Lin, a native of Taiwan, speaks about his path to American citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in Honolulu, Hawaii, in this U.S. Navy handout photo taken December 3, 2008. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st class Sarah Murphy/Handout via Reuters

If legendary British spy-turned-KGB mole Kim Philby was alive to offer arrested U.S. Navy officer Edward Lin advice — regardless of his guilt or innocence — we know what it would be.

Despite repeatedly coming under suspicion, Philby fed British and American secrets to Moscow for three decades before ultimately defecting in 1963. His survival, he told officers of the East German Stasi spy service in 1981, was partly down to organizational ineptitude and his privileged position as a member of Britain’s ruling class.

But it was also, he said, simply down to the fact that when challenged, he always maintained his innocence. Even when confronted with incriminating evidence in his own handwriting, he simply denied having anything to do with it.

“All I had to do really was keep my nerve,” said Philby according to a recording found by the BBC and published this month. “So my advice to you is to tell all your agents that they are never to confess.”

For Taiwanese-American Lieutenant Commander Lin, it may already be too late for that. The United States government remains remarkably tight lipped — for now, it remains unclear whether he is suspected of spying for mainland China or only Taiwan. All that is known for sure is that he faces charges of espionage, attempted espionage and a charge of patronizing a prostitute.

Lin was a member of an elite U.S. Navy reconnaissance aviation unit flying from Hawaii and said to operate some of the most sophisticated equipment and sensitive missions in the Pacific.

Still, in an era which has seen growing emphasis on electronic surveillance and the exploitation of cyberspace, the case acts as a stark reminder that much more old-fashioned human spying has not gone away.

The degree of focus on more sophisticated techniques is hardly a surprise. The information revolution has dramatically transformed how much data can be collected remotely, sometimes without its loss ever being discovered. While governments almost never comment on such activities, few doubt that officials in signals intelligence agencies in the United States, Russia, China, Britain and elsewhere continuously probe each other’s defenses in the hunt for clandestine information and insights.

Experts say intelligence agencies such as those of China and Russia are often now simply looking for sheer volume of information. Beijing, in particular, is able to exert considerable resources to going through it all and pulling signal from noise. Russian and Chinese spies have been suspected of dropping thumb drives in parking lots used by U.S. military and other personnel in the apparent hope they would be picked up and plugged in out of curiosity. The drives contained malware designed to penetrate sensitive computer systems and find ways of sending classified data back to its creators. (This attack, from 2008, is still seen probably the most serious].

Truly turning an insider, however, can provide something deeper still. At best, they can provide a degree of insight that even the most informed outsider would struggle to match.

If well motivated and imaginative, they can also have the best ideas about what they are best able to steal for maximum effect.

During the 1980s, the Soviet Union ran a number of spies in the United States to remarkable effect. CIA official Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen at the FBI betrayed so many Russians working for the United States that the CIA almost ceased recruiting foreign agents out of fear they could not protect them. From 1965 to 1985, U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Walker provided Moscow secrets of a variety of submarine and other naval equipment that experts say allowed the Soviet Navy to considerably close the gap.

Such espionage tactics are, of course, as old as time. Some current and former officials, however, say the end of the unipolar era of U.S. global dominance and emerging challenge from Russia and China in particular is putting them back on the table in a way not seen since the Cold War.

The current era of open borders and relatively free travel, of course, makes infiltrating agents across national boundaries easier than ever. Operating without detection, however, is that much harder — as is maintaining false identities. Just like militant groups, spy agencies have found that governments are now much better at using sophisticated technology to join the dots, crack down on and penetrate networks. The multi-person suspected Russian spy ring uncovered by the FBI in 2010, for example, was discovered by U.S. authorities and neutralized before it ever managed any espionage.

Persuading individuals to betray their country is also no easy task. If found guilty, suspected U.S. Navy spy Lin could face the death penalty — even though the United States has not executed anyone for espionage since 1953. Authoritarian states like Russia and China, of course, are even less forgiving.

Governments and militaries remain very much on guard for vulnerabilities among personnel with access to secret information — particularly those with access to classified technology, as appears to have been the case with Lin. One major recruitment tool that security agencies fear is always blackmail — although for that to work, the victim has to be more scared by whatever the blackmailer has over them than they are of the consequences of being caught spying.

In 2015, the U.S. government revealed that hackers — widely suspected of working for the Chinese government — compromised some 20 million records held by the Office for Personnel Management. The records included personal information declared by employees as part of the security clearance process. But as it had already been declared, it is hard to see how it could have been used for blackmail.

In a much more permissive 21st century, many people might also simply be less susceptible to such pressure. “By all means sleep with her,” one former U.S. official said a more senior colleague had told him when he reported the approach by a suspiciously enthusiastic Russian woman. “Just don’t tell her anything.”

The Cold War era Soviet Union, of course, had the advantage of ideology. Many of the foreigners who spied for it — such as the “Cambridge spy ring” that included Philby — were ideologically committed communists. (Philby himself is reputed to have found the realities of living in the USSR in the 1990s somewhat disappointing.)

Pure human greed can also go a long way. It appears to have been the primary motivating factor in persuading both Ames and Walker to spy for the Soviet Union. Their financial good fortune, though, also allowed them to be caught.

It is often a mix of factors. Markus Riechel, a former clerk at Germany’s BND external security service jailed last month for spying for the CIA, was paid for his services. But he said another major motivating factor was frustration and feeling underappreciated. Passing secrets made him feel important. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like that,” he told the court. He was captured shortly after attempting to start delivering documents to the Russians as well. It was a reminder that friendly governments, too, spy on each other.

U.S. officials have not yet revealed whether Lin is believed to have revealed information to Taiwan, China or both.

The latter would probably be more damaging. Whatever the truth, however, the case is likely to deepen the sense of suspicion with which mixed race or nationality personnel and contractors working with the U.S. government and military — particularly Chinese — are already sometimes held.

Like all insider spies, his greatest legacy may be a lingering sense of distrust that itself might make the U.S. government slightly less effective.

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Who cares. Spooks are morons who see enemies everywhere. Paranoid delusionals.

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