U.S. spies are no longer being tailed by foreign governments in about 30 different countries because advances in facial recognition, biometrics and artificial intelligence have made it almost impossible for the agents to hide.
Whereas governments would once physically follow CIA officers, facial recognition at airports and general CCTV surveillance in those countries makes it far easier to track people.
It comes as U.S. intelligence agencies face a growing crisis in intelligence gathering, as developments in technology are making it increasingly more difficult to protect operatives and mask their digital footprints.
In one attempt to tackle the crisis, the CIA created a multi-million dollar program called the Station of the Future, intelligence officials revealed to Yahoo News.
The program, created over the past decade, was run out of a diplomatic facility in Latin America and involved a team of spies trying to build tools and test techniques that could help the industry battle the digital age.
Some foreign governments no longer see the need to physically follow CIA officers to meetings because facial recognition at airports and general surveillance in those countries is so prevalent and advance
Intelligence officials told the outlet that the program eventually died off – only within the past few years – because of bureaucratic resistance and financial neglect.
Station of the Future was just one of several FBI and CIA-led programs created to try and tackle the digital threat to spies.
Duyane Norman, who is a former CIA official and the mastermind of the now-shuttered Station of the Future program, said: ‘The foundations of the business of espionage have been shattered.
‘We haven’t acknowledged it organizationally within CIA, and some are still in denial. The debate is like the one surrounding climate change. Anyone who says otherwise just isn’t looking at the facts.’
Officials say the efforts to address challenges brought by digital footprints, advances in biometrics and artificial intelligence continue to be a priority.
How home DNA tests could expose intelligence operatives
Just last week, the Pentagon ordered all military personnel to cease from using any consumer DNA testing kits because of security concerns.
The rise in popularity of the DNA kits, like the ones marketed by 23andMe and Ancestry, is considered to be one of the difficulties currently facing intelligence officials.
According to a memo co-signed by the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, genetic information collected by the home-testing companies could leave employees open to ‘personal and operational risks’.
‘These genetic tests are largely unregulated and could expose personal and genetic information, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission,’ the memo read.
While military personnel have been ordered not to use the kits, officials say it is likely someone within their family already has.
Experts have previously warned that the creation of these DNA testing kits has made it easier to piece together a person’s identity.
They now warn that exposing a spy could be as easy as getting a saliva sample from a cup or cigarette to reveal if they are operating under a fake name.
Biometric data and advances in surveillance make it nearly impossible for agents to hide
The explosion of biometrics, including facial recognition and fingerprints, also poses a huge risk to the spy industry.
Given the advancements in biometric data at some airports, as well as border crossings, officials say it has become almost impossible for spies to have more than one identity within one country.
Stealing biometric databases has become a top priority for intelligence officials given how easily it can expose foreign undercover agents.
‘It’s extremely difficult now to run cover operations when so much is known and can be known about almost everybody,’ one former intelligence official said.
Given the advancements in biometric data at some airports, as well as border crossings, officials say it has become almost impossible for spies to have more than one identity within one country
‘Now you show up at the border of Russia, they’ve got your high school yearbook out there where you wrote about your lifelong ambitions to work for the CIA. All that stuff is digitized.’
Increased surveillance abilities in some countries has also affected the ability for operatives to hide easily.
The increased surveillance and biometrics has also made it difficult for spies to even travel under an alias to begin with nowadays.
Advances in technology have some foreign agencies reverting to old-school methods
To cope with the developments in technology and the burden it can now have on intelligence, some foreign agencies – such as China – have taken to using no-tech methods.
Officials say Chinese intelligence officials have taken to carrying out dead drops in remote locations.
They also started exchanging physical intelligence or objects in public places.
‘It was unheard of for the Chinese,’ an official said. ‘The conclusion was that they felt the world was too digital and traceable.’
Others, including the Russians, have started specifically holding their covert meetings in countries where they know the biometrics systems aren’t as advanced.
Officials say Russian operatives, for example, are favoring countries in Central and South America.
Peru is one common meeting place where intelligence operatives may not be picked up using advanced biometric systems.
Hiding in plain sight: More operatives now just use their real identities because of digital footprints
Given the advances in technology and how difficult it is to assume a different identity, some intelligence officials across the world are now simply hiding in plain sight.
Agents in the U.S., Russia and China often now work under their true identities because digital footprints are becoming too hard to hide.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been experimenting via various programs – some of which are now defunct – over the past decade as to how best to maintain light cover.
In one instance, the CIA has started working with some private sector businesses in the U.S. to place their agents.
The agents use their real names and work in real jobs, including in the tech, film and finance industries.
Officials say the CIA has even started recruiting from within the businesses they already work with.
That way when the person has finished working with the CIA they can easily go back to working normally within that company.
Only very few executives are often aware of the arrangement with the CIA, officials say.
The use of these companies is particularly important in keeping up an operative’s backstory given the advances in technology and digital footprints.
Nowadays, a person’s identity can be quickly determined using a simple Google search.
Issues like this have become increasingly worse with various hacking incidents that have seen personal data, including intelligence operatives, stolen and leaked online or to other agencies.
This includes the OPM leak back in 2015 during which the data of 22 million people was stolen.