Coronavirus social distancing presents special challenges to spies

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While the COVID-19 public health crisis steals the headlines and kills tens of thousands, state-actors and transnational terrorist groups continue to purloin data, spread disinformation  and plan terrorist attacks. As the United States grapples with the virus’s spread, Russia and China have spread disinformation with the hope of destabilizing the U.S. political system while it is off balance. Both Chinese and Russian government officials and outlets have pushed conspiracy theories that the U.S. Army created COVID-19. 

At the same time, terrorist groups such as ISIS have claimed they will leverage the situation to carry out attacks like those in Paris and Brussels five years ago. A February 2020 Department of Homeland Security Federal Protective Service Bulletin, disseminated to state and local law enforcement, warned that white supremacists were exchanging messages about weaponizing COVID-19 to carry out attacks against U.S. government targets and minorities. 

Amid all of this, the U.S. national security community’s ability to detect threats may be less than optimal. If nothing else, U.S. policymakers who respond to intelligence assessments and daily briefings lack bandwidth to evaluate non-COVID-19 challenges. While there is little that can be done about the latter, one wonders what can be done about the former. 

Human intelligence (HUMINT) collection — a key tool to combat terrorism — is impaired during COVID-19. Spotting, assessing, recruiting and developing sources of information to combat terrorism and state-borne threats is extremely difficult when half of humanity is on lockdown. Blending into crowds while trying to clandestinely meet a source when there are no crowds becomes unviable and introduces a higher level of exposure. 

The streets of Moscow are devoid of people and the Russian Federation is deploying web-based applications to track people’s movements during the lockdown. HUMINT collection in hard-target locales such as Moscow always has been difficult, but the challenge is magnified under the lens of COVID-19 — and not even famous Moscow Rules or other time-honored tradecraft techniques will immunize sources and collection officers from detection. 

Risking a trained collection officer’s health to meet a source is another key consideration — even in cities where rules on gatherings are lax and restaurants, coffeehouses and businesses remain open. Face-to-face meetings, so vitally important in understanding the mindset and welfare of a source, likely are limited. To expose an officer to COVID-19 by meeting a source would be a risk worth taking only for the most vital of intelligence. Acquiring this intelligence via brush pass — a surreptitious exchange between individuals who literally brush past one another — when there are no crowds is foolhardy. 

Gaining new intelligence from an established source via dead-drops minimizes the health risk for an intelligence officer but also presents deadly challenges. A common method to avoid detection is to obscure travel pathways by implementing surveillance detection routes (SDR). Servicing a dead drop entails an intelligence officer adopting good SDR practices to subtly spot surveillance and otherwise blend into the environment. No matter how apt an officer may be in SDR protocols, they risk exposure, particularly without crowds offering camouflage. 

Those less sanguine about the future of human intelligence during times of pandemics may  appropriately point to technical intelligence methods as indispensable to preserving national security. No doubt, signals intelligence (SIGINT) and imagery intelligence (IMINT) are being leaned upon by policymakers to satisfy their intelligence requirements during this pandemic. But there always will be a need for well-placed human sources within governments or terrorist groups for intelligence that cannot be gathered otherwise. 

While the pandemic continues, HUMINT professionals are, where possible, levying technical means of continuing communication with established sources. Encrypted applications, such as  SIGNAL or some other mechanism, certainly can allow for continuity but are a poor substitute for face-to-face meetings. And, for potential recruits where there isn’t a trust-based relationship, such faceless communication is untenable. Are there other technical tools that collection officers can leverage during a pandemic?

First, in locations where sheltering in place is the norm, video teleconferencing can maintain continuity. These tools, if coupled with encryption technology, may allow collection officers an opportunity to “see” their established sources. They also could use this technology to record their interaction and then later assess the emotional intelligence (EI) of their sources. Work in this artificial intelligence (AI) space isn’t new but remains imperfect. For example, algorithms designed to analyze EI still contain bias, making it difficult to pick up on cultural cues. Nonetheless, these tools in time could augment assessments to help establish the veracity of a source. After all, strapping a source to a polygraph machine during a pandemic isn’t sensible or viable. 

Second, if virtual clandestine meetings aren’t practical, there may be ways to leverage AI to assess the written communications of sources. AI text analysis and natural language processing tools may help to gain insight into a source’s mindset. Divining motives by analyzing verbiage may provide insights into the veracity of the source if coupled with sentiment analysis. Again, these tools remain in their infancy but, with future investment, they could be used to supplement HUMINT collection.

Third, if in-person meetings remain the only option, non-hard target environments may present the opportunity to use remote biometric tools to ensure the bonafides of the source. Surveillance technology, in particular the ubiquity of cameras, coupled with AI-enabled facial recognition software may allow operations officers to remotely track their source to a meeting location. Using this technique can provide a level of assurance that the source is genuine. This method, however, may require the consent of an intelligence service to use its surveillance system, or tapping into the system surreptitiously (likely in violation of another country’s laws).

To counter threats to national security, HUMINT operations must continue. However, given the scope of the COVID-19 threat, operations officers must consider using technology in new ways. Vetting individuals who want to commit treason against their government or defect from their terrorist group will be challenging. Emerging AI technologies could alleviate some of the uncertainty regarding motivations of sources and allow for more secure meetings. What AI doesn’t offer, however, is a panacea for HUMINT collectors. 

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, director of its Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He also worked at State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and was a domestic intelligence analyst with the Congressional Research Service. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis.

Tags Counter-terrorism COVID-19 Intelligence officer Surveillance US intelligence community

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