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The Future of Clandestinity in a Panopticon World

Israeli intelligence officers caught on camera moments before carrying out an assassination of a HAMAS terrorist.

“Information wants to be free” – Stewart Brand

You do not need to be Alvin Toffler or Marshall McLuhan to have noticed that as a result of the information revolution that in the past decade, much like individual privacy, secrecy has taken one hell of a beating. While Wikileaks document dumping demonstrated that much of what governments overclassify as “top secret” are often simply diplomatically sensitive or politically embarrassing material, the covert ops raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was a reminder that some actions, operations and lives are critically dependent on secrecy.

Secrecy in the sense of intelligence agencies and other actors being able to carry out clandestine and covert activities is rapidly eroding in the face of ominpresent monitoring, tracking, hacking, scanning, recognition software and the ability to access such data in real time, online, anywhere in the world. A few examples: 

Col. TX Hammes at Best DefenseThe Internet and social networks are making it harder to work undercover

It is virtually impossible for an agency to provide sufficient cover for a false name. If you provide information like where you went to school, what posts you have served before, etc., the information can be quickly checked. (Most yearbooks are online; graduates are listed in newspapers; property records, etc.) If you don’t provide that information, then your bio sticks out.

Giving an intern the list of names of personnel at an embassy and telling them to build the person’s bio from online sources — with cross-checking — will quickly cut through a light cover. It will also challenge even a well-constructed cover. I think this is going to be one of the challenges for human intelligence in the 21st century.

Viewdle is a Two-Edged App and Panappticon

Viewdle – Photo and Video Face Tagging from Viewdle on Vimeo.

Haaretz Hamas man’s Dubai death was a Mossad-style execution

What makes the security camera shots released last night by the Dubai police interesting is the professionalism exhibited by the suspected assassins of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

They arrived on separate flights from different destinations; one of them flew in via Munich and Qatar. They stayed in different hotels and were careful to make phone calls using international routers. They wore clothing that makes them difficult to identify. One is seen with a mustache and a hat, others wearing hats and glasses. They try, throughout, to appear to be innocent tourists or business people, there to enjoy themselves and even play some tennis…

Pity the poor intelligence officer operating without diplomatic cover. A false beard and glassses will no longer suffice.

What kind of adaptions are possible or likely to take place by intelligence, law enforcement, military and corporate security agencies in the face of an emerging surveillance society? First, consider what clandestinity is often used for:

  • To avoid detection
  • To avoid identification even when detected ( providing “plausible deniability” )
  • To facilitate the commission of illicit acts or establish relationships under false pretenses
  • To conduct covert surveillance
  • To collect secret information of strategic significance (i.e. – espionage)
  • To facilitate long term influence operations over years or decades

Taking the long term view will be required. Some thoughts:

One effect will be that marginal subpopulations that live “off the grid” will be at a premium someday for recruitment as intelligence operatives. These “radical offliners” who have never had a retinal scan, been fingerprinted, had their DNA taken, attended public school, uploaded pictures or created an online trail, been arrested or worked in the legal economy will be fit to any false identity constructed and, if caught, are unidentifiable.

Another will be the creation of very long term, institutional, “false front” entities staffed by employees who will never know that the real purpose of the enterprise is to provide airtight legitimate covers and that the economic or other activities are merely ancillary. They won’t be standing jokes like Air America or the various business activities of Armand Hammer, but real organizations with only a few key insiders to facilitate periodic use for intelligence purposes. A similar tactic will be intel agencies “colonizing” legitimate entities like universities, law firms, consultancies, media, financial institutions, logistical and transhipping corporations and NGO’s with deep cover officers who are intended to make ostensible careers there. This of course, is part of basic intelligence history but the scale, subtlety and complexity will have to significantly increase if authentic “legends” are to stick.

Then there’s the creepier and less ethical path of intelligence agencies stealing and using the identities of real citizens, which hopefully a democratic state would eschew doing but which bad actors do now as a matter of course in the criminal world.

Speed will also be an option. As with the Bin Laden raid, fast will increasingly go hand in hand with secret, the latter being a transient quality. If you cannot avoid detection, like the Mossad agents out playing tennis on survellance video, beat the reaction time. Clandestine may also come to mean “Cyber” and “Robotic” moreso than “HUMINT”

Being invisible in plain sight is an art that will grow increasingly rare.

16 Responses to “The Future of Clandestinity in a Panopticon World”

  1. J. Scott Says:

    Very good post, Zen! I suspect the "off the grid" aspect is a challenge to for our troops in Afghanistan and in our successful collection of HUMINT their. Unplugged and "off the grid" provides a flexibility, as you point out, not always available to our world. Also, UBL managed to stay "off the grid" by taking precaution…but the trail of the courier led to his demise.

  2. Fred Zimmerman Says:

    Agree with Scott — excellent post!  some shrewd insights ..  not least of which is that home-schoolers rule!

  3. J. Scott Says:

    Eh, "there" not "their":((

  4. Mercutio Says:

    Consider the Albanian mafia.  Not only is Albanian a language which almost nobody understands; but the mafia uses a north Albanian dialect, which few Albanians understand.  You can wiretap them all you want; you will learn nothing.

    It is no coincidence that books like The Da Vinci Code, are becoming popular. Their inner workings are so esoteric that you could survey such a society at great length without comprehending their actual agenda. An overall neoPlatonism is compatible with this.
    Possession of data about something and insight as to what it means are two different things. You can possess all sorts of hieroglyphs from some ancient civilization without being able to read a thing. Covert operations are going to have to exploit that sort of distinction.

  5. Arherring Says:

    "Pity the poor intelligence officer operating without diplomatic cover. A false beard and glassses will no longer suffice."
    Perhaps he needs a very ugly t-shirt like the one in William Gibson’s Zero History?
    (question 5 and 6)
    Gibson’s concept is fictional (straight from the imagination of Bruce Sterling apparently), but it is possible to remove objects from camera feeds in real-time with software. Call it Stuxnet for CCTV cameras.

  6. zen Says:

    Thanks Scott and Fred!
    Mercutio – There’s a theory in the Genocide Studies field regarding the tendency of genocidal perpetrators to develop elaborate "in-depth" vocabulary of code words that allude to genocidal intentions to "insiders" while remaining opaque or "deniable" to outsiders. And that’s when everyone speaks the same language or when it is readily translatable and not in an obscure tongue or artificial code
    Like Gibson, have not read Zero History yet. Like the AR link – lots of implications in that technology

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    I mostly want to say that I think this was a superb post, Zen!
    One thought that occurs to me with regard to secrecy generalizes from and expands on Mercutio’s point above.  Knowledge can only be gained, so the theory goes, by those who are "adequate" to it. I think EF Schumacher talks about adaequatio in one of his books, possibly A Guide for the Perplexed.  Some forms of adequacy are like languages, — you won’t understand unless you speak them.  Some languages (mathematics) may have "reaches"’ that only a handful of people can follow… And then there are perhaps some kinds of knowledge that one can only be adequate to grasp if one is in some state of moral or spiritual virtue — Tibetan terma texts can only be found by suitably prepared lamas, for instance, and there are certainly "innocent" knowledges that the embittered and terminally sarcastic will never grasp… and even simple aha! insights don’t arise for the most part in closed minds…
    There has long been some sort of connection between the "hermetic" arts and cryptography, kabbalah and code, Abbot Trithemius and steganography…
    After all, the same guy who told the IC "the truth will liberate you" also said (my paraphrase of Mark 4 11-12) "You are allowed to know… but to outsiders, these things are presented in riddles, so they can see them without perceiving them, and hear them without understanding…"
    It might be worth thinking long and hard (after reading widely) about the different ways in which we can be morally, assumptionally and intellectually blind — and the kinds of truths that might be right beneath our noses without our seeing them.

  8. Mercutio Says:

    There’s a theory in the Genocide Studies field regarding the tendency of genocidal perpetrators to develop elaborate "in-depth" vocabulary of code words that allude to genocidal intentions to "insiders" while remaining opaque or "deniable" to outsiders. And that’s when everyone speaks the same language or when it is readily translatable and not in an obscure tongue or artificial code

    Somewhat similarly, Diego Gambetta, in Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate , explores the cryptic ways of gangsters.

    How do criminals communicate with each other? Unlike the rest of us, people planning crimes can’t freely advertise their goods and services, nor can they rely on formal institutions to settle disputes and certify quality. They face uniquely intense dilemmas as they grapple with the basic problems of whom to trust, how to make themselves trusted, and how to handle information without being detected by rivals or police. In this book, one of the world’s leading scholars of the mafia ranges from ancient Rome to the gangs of modern Japan, from the prisons of Western countries to terrorist and pedophile rings, to explain how despite these constraints, many criminals successfully stay in business. Diego Gambetta shows that as villains balance the lure of criminal reward against the fear of dire punishment, they are inspired to unexpected feats of subtlety and ingenuity in communication. He uncovers the logic of the often bizarre ways in which inveterate and occasional criminals solve their dilemmas, such as why the tattoos and scars etched on a criminal’s body function as lines on a professional résumé, why inmates resort to violence to establish their position in the prison pecking order, and why mobsters are partial to nicknames and imitate the behavior they see in mafia movies. Even deliberate self-harm and the disclosure of their crimes are strategically employed by criminals to convey important messages. By deciphering how criminals signal to each other in a lawless universe, this gruesomely entertaining and incisive book provides a quantum leap in our ability to make sense of their actions.

  9. JScottshipman Says:

    Mercutio, You are on to a good point. I believe the nuances and patterns of this specific language usage could be of use in signals intel. Your post is very important and insightful.

  10. Matt D Says:

    Great post and an issue I’ve been talking about with colleagues for a while.  In the age of social networks, any good cover also has to be integrated into social sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.  Given the bad guys can scrape these sites, they’ll know when an identify is new based upon the fact it doesn’t show up in the archives.  Facial recognition is also a key issue and if you caught the CIA CTO remarks two weeks ago, they can do 100% ID on someone based upon the gait signature for health devices like a FitBit.  Most phones are capable of collecting the same exact data.

    I’ll think we’ll see increasing use of “real life” as cover and perhaps a cottage industry of long-term cover development to include a presence on social media and identifies that are developed over multiple years before being put into action. 

  11. zen Says:

    Hi Matt,
    Good to see you here and thx!
    I didn’t catch the remarks (were it not for twitter & FB I’d miss a lot more out here in Chicago) but this gait analysis is fascinating. Wonder why it can’t be altered by something as simple as slanted lifts in shoes or a footbrace to change the step (say more toward pigeontoed etc)? 
    I’ll think we’ll see increasing use of “real life” as cover and perhaps a cottage industry of long-term cover development to include a presence on social media and identifies that are developed over multiple years before being put into action.

    Agreed. It is almost like the Illuminati-type conspiracy theories will have to be imitated to get functionally authentic covers. 

  12. Matt D Says:

    I wrote about the gait analysis on my blog:  http://www.devost.net/2013/03/19/i-am-big-data-and-so-are-you/ from the angle of wanting to be able to datamine my own big data to augment my life.

    Haven’t written about the cover angle just talk about it during speaking engagements and in my Georgetown class.  I should do a blog post, though you’ve got it covered here fairly well.

    I got into the Google Glass explorer program so you can expect I’ll be using the technology with an eye towards these issues as well.


  13. Matt D Says:

    Linked to the wrong blog post:


  14. zen Says:

    Matt – the link comes up “Page not Found”

  15. Charles Cameron Says:

    Try this:

  16. zen Says:

    Much thanks Charles!

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