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Espionage is very much alive

'Hacking' is rife today. It is no different to old fashioned espionage in its purpose: to advance the national interest. Russia, North Korea and China might be the first states that come to mind in terms of state sponsored cyber espionage. Each of these countries have a counter-part however, be it the United States, Israel or the United Kingdom. The interesting trend for espionage itself though, is the turn to introspective surveillance in light of globalisation and people movement. Every country today has, in some form or another, a capacity to conduct cyber operations in the interest of the nation state for whatever purpose. Interestingly, Singapore, Austria, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand are the five top countries receiving cyber-attacks by percentage of attacked users.

At first it is quite easy to forget that ‘hacking’, offensive cyber operations, information warfare and even defensive operations – the hardening of critical sources of information and infrastructure – all have a role to play in the modern intelligence cycle. Intelligence gathering through information networks, such as the global internet or physically localised systems in nations secure facilities, are now the most publicised element of intelligence collection. After all, state sponsored attacks have evolved to focusing on the private sector, banking, the individual, as well as a country’s government.

This is paradoxical for on lookers that have an appreciation for the role and capacity of intelligence in attaining national objectives. In one sense, intelligence operations are aided and championed for their covert and undetected nature. In another sense, there is a political and influential value to publicised intelligence operations that are conducted primarily through digital means. The Islamic State, Anonymous and other non-state actors have stood to gain through publicising attacks, which would be classically considered intelligence failures simply through their publicity value. This shouldn’t be confused with genuine intelligence failures, which have seen Islamic State forces attacked.

An extension to this paradox is how cyber operations or information warfare has grown so significantly that it has even allowed good old fashioned diplomacy to be constructed atop of it. A case in point is the cyber détente between the United States and China in 2015. Although the actual verdict of such state maneuvers is still out, what is perfectly clear is that the intensity, complexity and multitude of hacking is growing with every passing day.

What does this mean for intelligence craft? We know that computation is an undisputed asset to intelligence analysis. We also know that ‘cyber spy craft’ has gained notoriety due to its effectiveness and the ethical implications. Nonetheless, the other elements of intelligence, for example, human intelligence operations, scientific based operations such as measuring various signals and reverse engineering are no longer the primary focus of intelligence watchers and news sources. They are returning to their rightful place in the shadows. The exception of course is when they are implicated by publicised cyber-attacks.

What we must remember though is that it does not pay to discount the prevalence of other forms of spying, however commonplace cyber-attacks have become. This may give states an opportunity to recuperate from stains placed on their diplomatic relations due to 'well publicised' intelligence gathering. With the focus being on hacking, other forms of intelligence gathering may benefit from the cognitive dissonance of focusing on only one means of espionage.

There are, of course, other implications to what is slowly becoming the new normal of publicised espionage, but how this may be exploited by states in the future remains unseen - and if done correctly, is unknowable.

Gary Leigh is an international security analyst currently researching information warfare at the University of Melbourne.

Image credit: nolifebeforecoffee (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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