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The lights may have all but gone out on the James Bond franchise but real-life spies have a knack for attracting the exposure they are meant to avoid. From the radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko to the glamorous allure of Anna Chapman and the Russian spy swap, the intelligence world has kept on turning with the intrigue of the Cold War.

Although field agents such as Chapman remain central to the whole business of spying, technology is revolutionising intelligence work: brush-pasts and micro-dots are out, drones and spyware are in. The us-and-them certainty of the Cold War has become blurred, with each nation’s intelligence services pursuing a complex line-up of enemies and objectives. While the CIA seeks to neutralise jihadis, Mossad aims to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme and the Chinese hope to steal US military blueprints.

“Chapman was in some ways an odd throwback to days gone by,” says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Of course, there’s still a need for people to gain access to information systems. But many new mechanisms have advanced the old goal of stealing secrets.”

Despite all these, human operatives are out there in force – particularly in the case of China. Espionage is a mainstay of Beijing’s attempts to narrow the economic and technological gap with the West. Its approach has been dubbed the “Thousand Grains of Sand”: the recruitment of an army of informants by agents of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s equivalent to the CIA. The US government suspects that the MSS has set up more than 3,000 front companies in its country to provide cover for its spies.

Chinese intelligence has adopted the “KGB model”, according to Fred Burton, a former special agent with the US State Department and now vice-president of intelligence at STRATFOR, a global security analysis company. It’s a model still used by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the rebadged KGB. “It’s difficult to get an individual into MI5 or the CIA, so they target the fringe contractors who supply the intelligence community,” says Burton. “If you look at the spy network Chapman belonged to, it wasn’t in Washington, it was operating on the beltway.”

However, the Thousand Grains of Sand technique does not represent the future of espionage. As China achieves parity with its rivals, the snowfall of little secrets will grow lighter and less valuable. Aware of this, China has been investing in the technologies that will deliver intelligence well into this century, namely spy satellites, unmanned surveillance drones and cyber-espionage capabilities.

Military secrets have always been the spy’s gravy – the hardest secrets to obtain but potentially the most rewarding – and next-generation satellites are making armies softer targets for espionage. China launched three spy satellites in 2010 (giving it a total of 10), enabling Beijing to peer down on other countries’ military facilities. Japan has joined the race with four intelligence satellites to keep tabs on North Korea’s nuclear activities. The US, eager to retain its technological edge, is preparing to launch a $4bn (€3bn) spy-sat network – dubbed BASIC – in 2011.

As hi-tech takes over from trench coats, the military and intelligence worlds are set to increasingly intersect. This is apparent at the CIA, which has squarely shifted its focus to counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11. The operational wing of the CIA, the National Clandestine Service, has embraced drone technology. Operating in northwest Pakistan, the agency has used unmanned aircraft to surveil and eliminate al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. The method has attracted some controversy. Of the more than 600 people killed by drone strikes in 2010, a large proportion are believed to have been civilians. “This is arguably at odds with the definition of intelligence – the gathering of information,” says Aftergood.

Yet Burton says the CIA has always been involved in killing America’s enemies and he stresses the importance of the human link, even in unmanned aircraft strikes. “You need tactical, granular intelligence to target enemy operatives for assassination,” he says. “Human sources help you to make sense of that.”

Burton downplays the power of new technology to rewrite the rulebook. “Computers have made a big change,” he observes, “but technology has been a double-edged sword. The challenge is making sense of the information.” Prioritisation is also a challenge, he says. “We have limited resources and many competing requirements. Is it more important to know the status of Iran’s nuclear programme than to get tactical intelligence to keep soldiers alive in Afghanistan?”

The technology will always remain subordinate to human talent and intuition, Burton argues. US intelligence has a favourite acronym, MICE – money, intelligence, compromise and ego – which remains the cornerstone of its spy work. “Look at anyone, and you can find a human frailty with which to target them,” he says. “Do they need money? Are they sleeping around behind their wife’s back?” You will always need a human agent to identify and exploit these weaknesses. “Technology leaves gaps in your intelligence. You need people to fill those gaps.”

Although the human agent remains a vital cog in the intelligence machine, information technology, and chiefly the internet, is making cyberspace an important espionage arena. China is again doing all the running. Cyber-espionage rings such as GhostNet and Titan Rain, which originated in China with probable government backing, are known to have penetrated secure systems at Google, the Pentagon, World Bank and NASA, along with those at many private companies.

Cyber-attacks are the new espionage. Where you once broke into offices and rifled through filing cabinets, you now penetrate firewalls and ransack servers. “The biggest difference is that today you can steal secrets remotely,” explains Aftergood. “All nations that rely on networks must take this threat seriously.”

While the glamour of espionage is a misconception – “the job is mostly mundane,” recalls Burton – it is clear that the technological revolution will not render the field agent redundant. Spies like Anna Chapman will keep on laying their MICE traps so long as we have governments, and so long as they keep secrets.

  • ISI (Pakistan): The ISI is a master at playing both sides. Having set up the Taliban in the 1980s, it remains involved in the Afghan militant group. At the same time, Pakistani intelligence has supported the US in its war against the Taliban. So whose side is it on? The answer is: probably its own.

  • MOIS (Iran): Rumours abound of Mossad and CIA influence in the Iranian intelligence agency, so counter-intelligence efforts to safeguard Iran’s nuclear secrets are paramount. MOIS has stepped up its activity in Afghanistan, assisting the Taliban.

  • RAW (India): Criticised after the Mumbai siege in 2008, India’s Research and Analysis Wing has invested in new equipment. Believed to have thousands of agents in Pakistan, RAW is allegedly behind camps that train fighters to wage a proxy war against the Pakistani military in Kashmir.

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