Anyone who has seen the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall,” would be hard-pressed to find any traditional espionage tradecraft. More actual spying would have meant less of Daniel Craig running around in a too-tight suit chasing bad guys. When the villain — in this case a cyberterrorist played masterfully by Javier Bardem — is able to turn around and say to Bond, “Why are you doing all this running around and wasting your energy?”, anyone who knows anything about real spying is tempted to yell at the screen, “Because the script is garbage and there is no espionage written into this movie!” Bond’s ineptitude when faced with technology is a brilliant, if unintentional, commentary on society’s lack of readiness for spying’s shift into that realm.
From an intelligence perspective, the biggest threat facing America and the Western world today isn’t conventional terrorism — it’s the abundance of information and the increased access to it. The fail-safe? Only the conscience of the person with access. And when profit is a motive, neither a conscience nor competence can simply be taken for granted. Yet the intelligence industry is inserting profit motives everywhere — starting with hiring kids fresh off their probationary period at McDonald’s.
Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague has announced that the country’s intelligence services will give up to 100 18-year-olds a chance to try their talents as cyberspies and a career waging cyber warfare against internet criminals. Employing kids barely out of diapers to work for national spy agencies should turn out well. What could possibly go wrong if they have the “skillz,” right? Maybe mummy and daddy can write them a letter of reference saying how the job with MI6 will help top-up little Pembroke’s weekly allowance. They can add that he has been a responsible and mature boy ever since he was caught charging a small fortune in online pornography directly to the Bank of England through a special program he created. At least the recruitment will serve to stem the brain drain of cyberspecialists to the private sector — where they’re now doing who-knows-what for who-knows-who.
Similarly, American intelligence agencies like the National Security Administration have set up cyberespionage programs like the one at the University of Tulsa which, as London’s Daily Mail reports, “places 85 percent of graduates with the NSA or CIA.” And the other 15 percent end up where, exactly? Freelancing? For whom exactly? For a guy like the Javier Bardem character in “Skyfall”?
There’s no point finger-wagging at the intelligence industry itself because it is what it is — and that is an industry which in the public sector can pay worse than being a cashier at the local 7-Eleven. That’s because you should be doing it for the sexiness and patriotism of it and not out of a small-minded desire to pay your rent. But eventually it all wears thin because you can’t stand on a table at a bar and yell, “HEY LADIES, I’M THE REAL LIFE JAMES BOND! COME GET SOME OF THIS!” And the few women you are able to reel in have to pay the tab — so you decide to cash in and go private. And while no one can blame you for wanting to make a living, that’s your first sellout. Where the selling out stops after that is entirely up to you and your own conscience because it’s not like the CIA is going to keep track of you. For the longest time, the CIA didn’t even keep track of the side-jobs their own currently employed officers were performing while still with the service.
When was the last time you heard of a former intelligence officer with valid security clearance working in the private sector facing charges of treason? It just doesn’t happen. And that in itself means that presumably secure information can feasibly fall into the hands of anyone. All it would take in some cases would be for an enemy or competitor of America to name the person’s price.
So what’s the solution to this increased threat of access in the cyber era beyond continually developing new security that will eventually be breached? Counterintelligence education would be a good thing for everyone. And how about going “old school” and keeping critical information out of technology’s reach? It’s the spy equivalent of keeping money under your pillow instead of in a bank. And if you have anything top secret to transmit that can’t simply be whispered into someone’s ear? Try the postal service or a courier. No one ever thinks to look there these days. Go back to keeping filing cabinets, embedding information on View-Master reels and employing various other items that 18-year old hackers wouldn’t recognize as being from planet Earth or learn about in an NSA employment training course.
(Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and former Fox News host who writes regularly for major publications in the U.S. and abroad. Her website can be found at http://www.rachelmarsden.com.)