Espionage in the Digital Age: How Technology is Impacting the Recruitment and Handling of Spies


Digital technology has transformed every aspect of society. From online grocery shopping and dating platforms to parking meter apps, digitization has reshaped the world around us. This project explores technology’s impact on the “world’s second oldest profession”: espionage.

New developments in technology have both benefited and challenged human intelligence gathering. Gone are the days where agents can easily exchange information at personal meetings or via handling officers traveling to and from foreign countries undercover. The mobile phone and ubiquitous data have made these techniques complicated. Sophisticated governments like China and Russia, along with the U.S., have employed advanced biometric technology in transportation hubs to monitor the whereabouts of suspected government officials abroad. While technology has managed to make aspects of espionage faster, cheaper, and more efficient, it has also created demand for new techniques to combat its increased breadth and capabilities.

This project analyzes the impact of technology using the agent recruitment process. The introduction considers the impact of technology on society in general and will discuss the implications for the intelligence community. The introduction also touches on the vital role of human collection and factors that motivate individuals to spy on their own country. The project is divided into sections to discuss each step of the agent recruitment cycle: spot, assess, develop, recruit, handle, and terminate. Each section employs examples to demonstrate how traditional techniques compare to the new methods of the digital age and analyzes the associated benefits and challenges of advanced technology.

Much of the research for this project consists of examples from news stories surrounding intelligence successes and failures. It also includes insights developed from informational interviews with former and current intelligence professionals who have been forced to adapt to the digital revolution and witnessed how it has transformed their profession. These conversations help identify the ways in which the intelligence community has adapted to rapid changes in technology and what obstacles remain to be overcome to continue receiving national security information from human sources.