The probable death of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, reportedly poisoned with nerve agent novichok in the British town of Sainsbury, is a graphic but not uncommon reality of this day and age. Intelligence operations, most publicly referenced in spy movies and novels, are an art hidden in plain sight, and while its most effective incarnation is currently digital and based on big data analysis, it remains a standard means of action for most nations, including Argentina, where the relatively recent death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman still leaves a painful scar. From US President Donald Trump to Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, proactive intelligence operations constitute an important tool in geopolitical relations and will continue to generate headlines, particularly as methods become even more sophisticated and missions bolder. But rather than being scandalised, it’s crucial to understand the whats, wheres and hows in order to acknowledge that these things are happening constantly, under our own noses and even even in our own pockets, so as to properly interpret the times we live in.
The nefarious attack on Colonel Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, is all the more frightening given its proximity. According to official sources, the pardoned double agent was targeted with a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent in a quiet English town less than 150 kilometres from London, the deadly chemicals having been planted in the young woman’s suitcase or the former spy’s car. At press time, both remain in critical condition, while at least one police officer had fallen ill and several locations in Sainsbury remained cordoned off. British Prime Minister Theresa May indicated Russian intelligence agencies were behind the attack, expelling 23 Russian diplomats from the UK and garnering the support of France, Germany, and a reluctant United States. “[This is] the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War,” they said in a joint statement. The Russian Foreign Ministry denied involvement in the attack.
Poisoned in plain sight with a powerful nerve agent, the attack on Skripal sends another clear message to Putin’s foes, as happened with the very public death of ex-spy Alexander Litvienko, poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006. It also speaks of the impunity with which Russia operates and how far it will go to track down its sworn enemies. Yet Russia is far from alone in the field of espionage and forward intelligence operations, with the United States at the forefront, and several others including China, Israel, and Iran, for example, also being active.
US President Barack Obama personally signed off on at least 563 drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, amid his covert war on terrorism, according to data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. That’s 10 times more than under his predecesor, George W. Bush, and doesn’t include deaths in active battlefields (such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Libya). The legality of these targeted assassinations remains very much in question. Obama, however, was awarded the Noble Peace Prize.
While drone strikes were the preferred, and probably most efficient, method for the United States, cyber espionage is where the most important battles are being played out today. The rise of computer systems and today’s proliferation of mobile devices means practically everyone, and every system, is a potential target. There are more than five billion mobile device users in the world, according to GSMA Intelligence, and more than three billion social media users, a report by We Are Social has indicated. Every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, meaning 90 percent of all the data in the world today was created in the past two years, research by IBM concludes. The web’s penetration into every aspect of our lives, along with the hyper-connectivity offered by smartphones at every moment of the day, and the prevalence of social media and messaging applications generate a perfect ecosystem for intelligence agencies, hackers, and marketers to collect and process millions of pieces of information, allowing them to produce accurate maps of who we are and what we like. While Facebook and Google use this to make billions selling users targeted ads, they can also be used to manipulate public opinion, steal sensitive data, and even generate a physical impact in the real world.
Stories abound of the feats of cyber espionage, particularly Russian and American. In the midst of its secretive plans to ramp up their nuclear programme, Iran was hit by the infamous Stuxnet virus — reportedly developed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Israeli government — which took control of centrifuge machines in nuclear facilities, accelerating them until they broke down. Just to help it sink in, they randomly blasted Australian rock band AC/DC from different work stations, to the confusion of the Iranian scientists, Finnish computer security expert Mikko Hypponen recounted. In Ukraine, a Russian cyberattack took control of the country’s power grid and generated several blackouts leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity. A brilliant piece by journalist Andy Greenberg detailed the events, indicating that the same groups had already infiltrated US targets, including nuclear power plants, water, and electric systems. Only this week, the Trump Administration accused Moscow of perpetrating a series of attacks on its infrastructure systems.
All of this hits closer to home, though. There is commercial software, readily available to anyone willing to cough up a couple thousand dollars per month, that allows analysts the capacity to detect and follow cyber threats and targets across the web. Raise the price a little and you have the capacity to generate virtual agents capable of infiltrating private Facebook and WhatsApp groups, to identify individuals across their digital profiles and even track their position in real-time through their phones. And it doesn’t even have to be that fancy: during the 2015 US Presidential election, 126 million US citizens were reached with Russian-backed Facebook ads – for a little more than US$100,000.
Here in Argentina most businessmen and politicians know their phones are probably tapped, as the recent leaks of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her former head spy, Oscar Parrilli, make comically clear. The end of privacy is a reality we are forced to live with, and while Putin’s poison and Washington’s drones are more scandalous acts, the Orwellian nature of cyber espionage is even more ominous.