If you're an instructor in cover — how to pass as someone you aren't — at the CIA training facility near Williamsburg, Va., what the hell do you tell your students about life in the field?
Edward Snowden's exploitation of the NSA's surprisingly penetrable firewalls, Bradley Manning's large-scale collection of State Department cables, and the inability of the U.S. government to contain secrets are of course features of the open-source revolution that is changing how citizens interact with their government. We can hold our government more accountable. And that's good.
A caveat in honor of Evgeny Morozov goes here: That interaction may not be for the better, of course; the flip side is the ease with which political dissidents can be tracked, imprisoned, and killed. In other countries, the "open" society is nothing of the sort.
Since I'm an intelligence community junkie, I want to mention two examples of how the same principle, the same technological reality, can become a powerful weapon of governments and be a significant detriment to the core mission of their intelligence services.
Cover is a term of art, but spies for the U.S. — the case officers at the National Clandestine Service, the intelligence analysts and officers of the Special Collection Service, the newly minted collection officers at the Defense Clandestine Service, and select members of the U.S. special operations forces — operate in the world under an identity that is not the one they were born with. Foreign governments have forever tried to out U.S. personnel working undercover and often with success.
This next generation of spies, the men and women who are in high school now, are going to find that it will be virtually impossible to live a life undercover. The CIA knows this, and it is gradually changing the way it integrates intelligence officers into their assignments. Malevolent and friendly entities are gobbling up data from U.S social networks to try and identify current and future spies; a big source of intelligence is the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles that former CIA officers establish once they've retired. Just like the NSA, foreign intelligence services can use Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to track the activities of current and former American intelligence operatives. And who, at the age of 12, thinks about the record he or she is leaving online at that age as a barrier to future employment as a spy?
CIA officers used to acquire legends and cover identities that could, if investigated, actually check out. But now, it's impossible to do that; augmented reality can automatically scan faces entering a country through intelligence databases as well as through open-source repositories of images, like Google's image search. (The U.S. is not the only country that conducts dragnet surveillance using fiber and cable taps.)
It will be very hard for a CIA officer to pretend to be a scientist or a researcher or anyone else in the future. The solution may be, ironically, that they need to accept from the get-go that their identity is known to the enemy, and they've got to go back to other elements of tradecraft to elude surveillance, or find ways of spying in plain sight.
The flip side of this happens to be a specialty of the Mossad and Israel's special forces. They can manipulate online identities to make it appear as if someone is a spy or a double agent, is cooperating with people he or she shouldn't be cooperating with, is having sex with dead girls or live boys — pretty much anything you might envision someone doing.
The U.S. government does this on occasion — it's an "Integrated Joint Special Technical Operation" — and the NSA works with the CIA to try and keep case officers' identities and legends sacrosanct online, hacking into overseas networks where a spy may or may not have been identified. Reputation management as a tool of intelligence agencies can be highly destructive, too. It's the electronic equivalent of planting a gun on someone to see them arrested, or of a police officer disclosing to a member of a gang that a compadre is cooperating with police, and it's happening quite frequently.