What is going on? Russian spies are assassinating people in other countries, directing internet companies to troll our social media and trying to undermine our political process almost in plain sight.
At the same time, agents acting at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party are stealing our proprietary information and technology. North Korean spies have become New Age bank robbers, while Iranian spies have attempted to assassinate dissidents in Denmark and a Saudi diplomat in the United States. And the United Arab Emirates has hired former government hackers to spy on dissidents and civil rights activists.
The spy business is clearly booming.
But it is not just government spy agencies. We are also witnessing the democratization of spy tools and techniques that used to be the sole purview of a highly select group of intelligence services. Less sophisticated services in other countries are now getting into the act.
As The Times reported in April, surveillance technology built for China’s political system is now being used — and in some cases abused — by as many as 18 other countries, including Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates and Germany. That is just one example of the globalization of the espionage economy.
It is not just nations. Numerous nongovernmental groups and private individuals are also purchasing spy tools and techniques for illicit purposes. Cybercriminals are a case in point. True hacking expertise was once primarily the domain of computer gurus and sophisticated intelligence services, but today such know-how is easily obtained on the black market.
Similarly, even less sophisticated drug cartels, terrorists and other criminal networks can deploy high-quality cameras and voice-recording devices for nefarious purposes. Other intelligence tools are used to steal information and technology belonging to our companies and research institutions.
The easy availability of spying hardware and know-how, combined with the weakening of norms and laws in international relations, has made the world less predictable and more dangerous. Yet what has happened in recent decades is nothing compared to what is coming.
Big data, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 5G cellular networks will change our society in ways that we cannot begin to imagine, for better and for worse. Ever more powerful, easily accessible technology will supercharge competition between states — and empower intelligence services, criminals and terrorists.
There is a way for the United States to navigate these treacherous waters: better counterintelligence. Simply put, counterintelligence is about protecting something valuable — an asset, a system, a process, a way of life — from an adversary.
Effective counterintelligence begins with the American people and its public officials understanding that our country has a bull’s-eye on its back. Our position as the pre-eminent military and economic power in the world is under challenge as never before, as extremely capable and dedicated rivals seek to gain advantage over us. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and other countries pose grave threats, and advanced technology is leveling the playing field.
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This means that agencies across our government must become familiar with the objectives, capabilities and methodologies of our adversaries. In addition, clear national security policies should be rigorously carried out across the entire federal government to ensure that all agencies, especially those outside the intelligence community, understand the best ways to protect government employees and data. Successful counterintelligence also requires our corporations and universities to better protect their vital assets, such as cutting-edge scientific research, so that they do not fall into the wrong hands.
Individual citizens have a part to play in this fight as well. Our nation’s deep political divisions are a major vulnerability; foreign adversaries are trying to exploit them, as the 2016 election showed. To protect our democracy — and our place in the world — we need to restore a sense of national unity and purpose, treating more of our fellow citizens the way we treat our loved ones.
As we head into the 2020 presidential campaign, where our adversaries may once again try to poison our political debate, we would do well to remember something John F. Kennedy once said: “There are few if any issues where all the truth, all the right, and all the angels are on one side.”
Bill Priestap, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, was head of the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence division from 2015 through 2018.
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