Spies of the future ought to go low-tech

A while ago now, when there was still a Cold War, the world wide web hadn’t yet been invented, no one had a mobile phone in their pocket and newspaper companies still had money to lavish on reporters, I was sent off to trek around the USSR.

A while ago now, when there was still a Cold War, the world wide web hadn’t yet been invented, no one had a mobile phone in their pocket and newspaper companies still had money to lavish on reporters, I was sent off to trek around the USSR.

One didn’t trek, exactly. You had to be a guest of the Soviet government and you were given a ‘‘guide’’, a trusted comrade of the Communist Party whose job it was to ensure the guest saw just as much of life in the USSR as was officially permitted.

There was an endless round of factory tours – at one such place a worker informed me, when I inquired what industry was supposed to be occurring, that ‘‘they pretend to pay us, we prepare to work’’ – visits to television stations, recitals of opera and performances of ballet, trips to historic sites, conversations with tame newspaper editors and the like.

I developed a technique of bidding my guide good night each evening and, yawning, heading off to my room. Communist Party members in that winter of 1988 weren’t supposed to drink alcohol, so a gift of a bottle of vodka ensured that guides would remain in the privacy of their rooms in the evenings.

Then I would find one of the helpful black-market kids who infested the bars and streets around hotels. With a further gift of cigarettes, these savvy urchins would spirit me out into the night and introduce me to relatively ordinary people who would confide details of their lives, which were rarely happy. Places such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were in a tumult of demand for independence from Moscow and there was no shortage of voices wishing to be heard, often on the wise requirement of anonymity.

When I finally returned to Australia, an old journalist long considered by colleagues around Canberra to be suspiciously close to the intelligence community informed me that he had a couple of friends who were most interested in hearing of my adventures. We repaired to a quiet Canberra bar where his ‘‘friends’’ turned up, overkeen on paying for the drinks.

They were – and it remains both marvellous and astonishing – wearing trench coats. They couldn’t have shouted any louder that they were spooks: members of the secret intelligence world.

I happily drank their free grog and told them that everything I had learnt in the USSR was available for all to read in a series of articles I’d written for my newspaper. Even the stories gleaned through the assistance of the black-market kids were there. Prodded about my assessment of what might happen to the USSR, I told them the Baltic states certainly wanted freedom, but I couldn’t imagine Moscow giving it to them.

I was as hopeless, in short, as the West’s entire spy network, which managed to miss the fact the old Soviet system was about to collapse. Still, there was the feeling for a moment that one was being introduced to the far edges of a downmarket le Carre thriller, with quiet men in trench coats anxiously trying to gather anything that smelt remotely like inside information from the other side of what was known as the Iron Curtain.

Such innocent days. A lot of the romance, cack-handed as it may have been, has gone out of the spy business since then, as we keep discovering.

Electronic eavesdropping arrays, embassies used as listening posts, the remote bugging of mobile phones – right up to those of national leaders – and international agencies combing gazillions of conversations, email transmissions and internet communications mean that shady fellows in trench coats have been replaced, largely, by computers and the nerds who run them hunkered down in secure basements and ivory towers.

So desperate have so-called traditional spy organisations become that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’s chief Nick Warner not long ago actually invited journalists to attend a lecture focused on the importance of what is known as ‘‘humint’’ – old-time human spooks wandering the world collecting ‘‘human intelligence’’, by which is meant having quiet le Carre-type chats.

It was a remarkably open gesture given that the very existence of ASIS wasn’t admitted, even to parliamentarians, for 20 years after it was established. In recent decades the poor spies of ASIS haven’t even been allowed to go around armed, which rather strips their craft of the glamour accorded them by thrillers. It isn’t hard to conclude that this secret agency is having trouble competing in the recruiting market with the new breed of electronic eavesdroppers, cyberwarriors and searchers and their sizzling keyboards and impossibly high-tech computers and screens.

But might the recent revelations about the all-encompassing Big Brother aspects of spying have the unintended effect that, if governments really want to ferret out secrets, or keep their own, the trench coat may have to make a return?

In the knowledge that even middling nations such as Australia, let alone superpowers such as the US, set up immensely capable listening posts both onshore and in its key embassies around the globe, why would anyone with half a brain whisper secrets into their mobile phone or spray off an email loaded with valuable industrial, political, military or security intelligence?

There is a whole generation of wise old rural folk who remember their long-gone telephone party lines, where anyone could listen to any conversation, and still won’t discuss private matters over the phone. Yet modern people download just about everything, imagining it might be secure.

It’s long been the case, for instance, that Australian and other foreign diplomats and canny business people turn off their mobile phones and their computers and leave them in Hong Kong when they are heading into China. The reason is obvious – the Chinese are extremely keen on and supremely capable of extracting any stray information floating on the air and across internet servers and using it for their own ends.

Invented a new widget? Put the blueprint on a computer server and in a nanosecond it is being copied and manufactured in China. Australia’s former foreign minister, Bob Carr, admitted only this week that he assumed his phone was bugged in various areas of the world.

It’s hardly surprising that intelligence agencies have warned Australian governments that the National Broadband Network ought not use the Chinese techno-company Huawei.

British parliamentarians ignored the same advice from their intelligence service, MI5, but the US – which ought to have some idea, given that it spies electronically on the entire world – chose to keep Huawei at a distance.

With everyone listening to everyone else, it seems to come down to a choice about who we are willing to risk sharing our secrets with. Perhaps a bit of muttering between actual people in the odd bar wasn’t such a bad idea after all, even if it was hit and – spectacularly, in the case of the failure to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union – miss.

At least an honest journo could get a free drink, which in a world operating on leaky phone and data signals, seems civilised.

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